Reports of Barcelona’s demise appear to have been somewhat premature. Since they were made to look leaden-footed by Juventus in the Champions League, like Fairport Convention’s Dave Swarbrick they had been obliged to read their own obituary all week.
But here, with a performance of grit, determination and supreme skill in the home of their greatest foe, the Catalan side looked very much alive, as they insisted that their grip on the La Liga title is not going to slip without a scrap. A corker from Ivan Rakitic and two astonishing goals from the ever-astonishing Lionel Messi gave them a victory which put them level at the top of the division. Not bad for the walking dead.
And what a scrap this match was, a toe-to-toe heavyweight slugfest of such relentless, switchback intensity that to turn the head for a moment was to miss a critical blow. If Anthony Joshua against Wladimir Klitschko turns out to be half as good a battle next weekend, we are in for a treat.
It began in a mood of celebration. Sergio García was given the honour of a ceremonial kick-off, which he conducted in his Masters Green Jacket. The champion golfer’s presence seemed to inspire the team he has long supported: Madrid began in top gear, clearly sent out with instruction to cause havoc on the breakaway against Barca’s sluggish back line.
As usual, Cristiano Ronaldo, wearing a new haircut which gave him the appearance of someone who had just had a plate of spaghetti Bolognese tipped over his head, was at the heart of everything. After just seven minutes, he exchanged passes with Karim Benzema, who fed Gareth Bale barrelling forward. The Welshman, restored after injury, won a corner which Toni Kroos took. Marc-André ter Stegen managed to punch the ball away, but only as far as Marcelo, lurking with intent. His deep cross back into the crowded area found Sergio Ramos, who volleyed against the post. With the Barca defence hoping for the intervention of the offside flag, in stepped Casemiro to prod the ball home.
But if anyone assumed that would presage Barcelona collapse, how wrong they were. Only five minutes of Madrid superiority had elapsed when Sergio Busquets’s shrewd pass picked out Rakitic on the edge of the home box. His deft inside pass found Messi arriving at pace, a piece of padding between his teeth to stem the blood from a lip split earlier by Marcelo’s elbow. It did not appear to slow him as he sashayed and shimmied his way through the Madrid defence before planting a perfect shot past Keylor Navas.
Suddenly things were not going well for Madrid. A couple of minutes later, Bale went down clutching his left ankle. He was replaced by Marco Asensio. Then Casemiro was lucky not to get a second yellow when cynically bringing down Messi. But, buoyed by a half-time reminder from their manager Zinedine Zidane that victory would as good as give them the title, the home side regrouped and began the second half re-enthused. First Benzema nodded Marcelo’s cross into Ter Stegen, before Carlos Carvajal smacked a shot over the bar from 30 yards.
But, refusing to yield, Barca came back, Navas saving first from Paco Alcácer, followed by a full-length dive to keep out Gerard Piqué’s header. Then Ronaldo, from Asensio’s cutback, missed a gilt-edged invitation to secure the points. What a miss that was. Because danger constantly lurked: seconds later Navas brilliantly kept out a precision volley from Luis Suárez.
It was then that the old Barca, clinical, deadly, precise, resurfaced. Rakitic picked the ball up on the edge of the Madrid box, sending two defenders the wrong way with a chop of his right boot, before arcing a screamer past Navas with his left. Now trailing, things appeared to be up for Madrid when Ramos pulled Messi down and was given a straight red.
But this match had more in store, and after Marcelo set up a chance with a cross sharp enough to open a can of sardines, the substitute James Rodríguez stole what appeared to be a perfectly-timed equaliser with time running out. Everyone celebrating inside the Bernabéu knew a point would have been enough effectively to end Barca’s hopes.
Messi, however, showed nothing could be taken for granted. As ever in the right place at the right time, the genius in the striped shirt swept home Jordi Alba’s pass to score the winner with the game’s last kick. It was a goal which Luis Enrique, the visiting manager, said put his side right back in the title race.
“Yes, Madrid have a game in hand,” he added. “But they have to win it.” Incredibly, it was Messi’s 500th finish for Barcelona. And judging by the way he celebrated its significance, whipping off his shirt in delight, it must already be reckoned among his favourites.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Navas; Carvajal, Ramos, Nacho, Marcelo; Casemiro (Kovacic 70), Modric, Kroos; Bale (Asensio 39), Benzema (Rodriguez 82), Ronaldo.
Subs: Casilla (g), Isco, Danilo, Morata.
Booked: Casemiro, Kovacic, Carvajal.
Sent off: Ramos.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Roberto, Umtiti, Pique, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, L Suarez, Alcacer (Andre Gomes 70).
Subs: Cillessen (g), D Suarez, Digne, Turan, Mascherano, Alena.
Booked: Umtiti, Messi.
Referee: A J Hernández Hernández.
Messi produces an improbable, brilliant last-second winner
Lionel Messi produced an improbable, brilliant last-second winner to settle a blistering Clásico in Barcelona's favour in Madrid this evening.
The hype around El Clásico can lead to anti-climax. These fixtures have been known to descend into a festering mass of play-acting and cynical fouls. Tonight, however, we witnessed a classic Clásico.
Barcelona trailed their great rivals by three points having played a game more before kick off, so knew a win was vital for them with matches running out. Their form was not good, and their coach Luis Enrique will leave this summer.
Real, unbeaten in 12 prior to kick off, started at pace, and took the lead just before the half hour when Brazilian midfielder Casemiro tapped in from close range after a previous effort struck the post.
Casemiro had been booked by this stage, and was perhaps fortunate not to be sent off before half time. Barcelona's ire at the decision to reprieve him eased by a sensational equaliser, rolled in exquisitely by Messi after he'd sliced through the home defence in one fluid movement.
The second half initially looked like a tale of two goalkeepers - Germany's Ter Stegen and Costa Rican Keylor Navas traded improbable stops. It needed a goal of supreme quality to beat them - Rakitic strode infield and provided it with a quarter of an hour left for play. It went like a shell.
That looked to be that, particularly when Sergio Ramos was dismissed for the 22nd time in his career for attempting to snap Lionel Messi's leg clean off.
But Real weren't done, and it looked like they had the point they craved when substitute James Rodriguez made the most of tired defending to slam in an equaliser four minutes from time.
That reckoned without Messi. Brilliant Messi. Unbelievably, unfeasibly, the right man in the right place again, two minutes into two minutes of added on time at the end of the game, to crisply finish in the only place Navas couldn't reach, to win the game with the final kick.
A staggering 92 minutes of football. An absolute privilege to watch. Settled by Messi's 47th goal of the season, and 500th of his club career.
Still to come
Ramos will be suspended for two of Real's final six matches. They have Deportivo A, Valencia H, Tony Adams' Granada Revolution A, Seville H, Celta A and Malaga A with a two-legged European semi-final with Atletico Madrid crammed in there as well.
Barcelona are out of Europe, and have one fewer game to play. They go to Osasuna next, the derby with Espanyol at home, Villarreal H, Las Palmas A and Eibar H.
The game in hand is away at Celta Vigo, and it's the penultimate game on Real's list.
Tale of the tape
My goodness. What an absolute pleasure to sit through and watch. Utterly compelling.
Real took the lead on the half hour, Casemiro finishing from close range after Ronaldo hit the post. They'd started the half stronger but Barcelona took no time at all to hit back - Messi equalising after slicing through the home defence with immaculate control and finish at speed.
It looked for a while like the two goalkeepers would steal the show as Navas and Ter Stegen traded a collection of quality saves. But when Rakitic drew his boot back and drilled in from 20 yards with a quarter of an hour left it seemed Barcelona had done it - particularly when Sergio Ramos did his best Sergio Ramos impression with a disgusting tackle on Messi and red card.
Back came Madrid. James Rodriguez perhaps an odd choice to come on, but he equalised from close range off Marcelo's cross with five to go.
A draw would have suited Madrid, but they allowed themselves to be caught six v three in a skinny two minutes of added time. Messi did the rest. An immaculate finish to win a wonderful match with the final kick.
Nurse, the big tablets please.
Barcelona go top, they have 75 points and +62 goal difference with a better head to head record than Real who have the same number of points but have played one match fewer - that game in hand is away at Celta Vigo.
Lionel Messi wins the Clasico for Barcelona with his 500th goal for the club. Seconds to go. There's good, there's great and there's genius.
— Paul Hayward (@_PaulHayward) April 23, 2017
FULL TIME - Real Madrid 2 Barcelona 3
Well, it was no Line of Duty, but it wasn't bad.
Messi, with the last kick of the game, on the end of a six on three counter attack, smacks the ball into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. Just the 47 goals this season so far. What a finish, what a game.
Messi removes his shirt and does a little tour of the ground showing the crowd his name. Booked for overcelebrating - bet this referee's fun at a party.
Madrid players sink to their knees across the field. An ending the scriptwriters at Dream Team would have dismissed as far fetched.
90+2 mins MESSI. PURE MESSI. Real Madrid 2 BARCELONA 3
I don't know what to say.
Buzz Killington signals just two minutes.
Asensio shoots at the near post, Ter Stegen turns it aside. Asensio crosses to the far post, Ronaldo miscues his finish. If there's ever been a game played at a higher pace than this I haven't seen it. Referee hopefully about to tell us we're going to have three and a half days of added time.
What am I seeing here? Real in again, Rodriguez tries a cross, cleared back to him, shoots looking to catch Ter Stegen out, the German keeper saves on the line.
85 mins GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!! REAL MADRID 2 Barcelona 2!!
They've only gone and done it. That Barcelona defence creaks again as Marcelo crosses to the near post and Rodriguez, just on the pitch, steals in unmarked and hammers in at the near post. Level again.
Barcelona, oddly given the circumstances, over commit for a corner and are lucky that a Real counter comes to nothing as James Rodriguez, just on as a sub, shoots straight at Ter Stegen.
Here comes James Rodriguez, that summer crush you had way back in 2014 and now it's just awkward
— Robert Gilbert (@RobGilbz) April 23, 2017
Navas, again, diving left to keep Messi out after he'd turned Kroos and gone hunting for the bottom corner.
Getting nasty now. Kovacic deliberately chops Messi down, he gets booked.
The red is the 22nd of Ramos' career apparently.
Red card for Ramos. Never would have predicted that.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) April 23, 2017
If the red card wasn't game over, this surely should have been. Cross from the left finds Pique, of all people, completely free on the penalty spot with the ball at his feet. Navas, absolutely outstanding in now probably defeat, springs from his line and saves.
77 mins Ramos red card
The ninth annual Sergio Ramos brain explosion sees the Spanish international sent off. Inexplicably takes off and tries to hack Messi down with a vile two footed, airborne, wild lunge. All the studs showing. All the studs that have ever been manufactured.
Didn't even wait for the red card, straight off down the tunnel, offering several Barcelona players and staff out as he goes.
Probably just as well for the assistant referee, who was presumably thinking about other things, that Ronaldo has rolled his shot straight to the keeper. The Portuguese superstar was one of three obviously offside Real players in that move.
72 mins GOLGOLGOLGOLGOL Real Madrid 1 BARCELONA 2!!!
Rakitic. Edge of the box, turns inside, has a look, sends one fizzing into the far top corner. No saving that one, wouldn't have got near it with a butterfly net.Barcelona now level with Madrid at the top of La Liga as it stands, with a better goal difference and head to head record. Your move Real.
Ter Stegen down at the near post to save from Asensio. Both keepers having superb games here - could easily have been 3-3 on another night.
Goalscorer Casemiro steps down off the disciplinary tightrope /cliche and into the early bath water with Kovacic on for him.
Back to the end to end carnage of the first half as Barcelona nearly make the most of their let off only for Navas to make his third key save of the second half to deny Suarez at the back stick.
66 mins Ronaldo in missed sitter shocker
Moments after trying, and failing to execute a spectacular bicycle kick Ronaldo has a far easier opportunity with the goal at his mercy on the end of a pass from Asensio but he contrives to hook it over.
Sam is always immaculately turned out to be fair.
And to think Luis Enrique's friends told him he was wasting his money when he bought that suit at 4am in Vegas from a hotel foyer pianist
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) April 23, 2017
All onto the floor again for a little roll around. Carvajal not happy with Suarez who had a kick out at him after a foul a moment before on Modric. Referee gives the headmaster pointy finger treatment and on we go.
Navas keeps the score level. Flying save off to his left with no time to react as Pique plants a firm header towards the far corner from a Barcelona corner. Turning into a tale of two goalkeepers this...
Madrid's turn to fume with the official as Marcelo is penalised for a legitimate tackle. Messi sportingly boots the resulting free kick over the bar and into the stand.
And, just as in the first half, after ten minutes of Real pressure without a goal, Barcelona fly forwards and almost score with the first attack. Alcacer, all alone in the penalty area, 12 yards out, goes for the toe poke, Navas saves with his legs.
Decent with his hands though to be fair - fantastic save from Ter Stegen to deny Benzema at extremely close range. Real dominant.
Barcelona can't get out of their own half at the moment - though when your goalkeeper is passing it straight to an opposing striker twice in as many minutes that's not going to help. Ter Stegen lucky to escape both times. John Beck would never have stood for this.
Barcelona asleep at a Real corner, Kroos given a free run into the area, Ramos says he was pushed, Ronaldo leaps, but the cross is uncharacteristically overhit. As in the first half, Real have flown out of the traps and Barcelona are still in the sheds.
German v German - Kroos shoots first time, catching Ter Stegen unsighted, but the keeper still gets across to make a reasonably comfortable save in the bottom corner.
Real on the front foot straight away, Pique with a crucial interception at the near post with Benzema and Ronaldo waiting behind him for a tap in. Probably Ronaldo, if it had got there, which it didn't.
Back for round two. A real treat so far. Second half underway...
Half Time - Real 1 Barcelona 1
Somehow Messi volleys wide from close range after navas has an absolute flap at a corner and that's half time. Everybody back round the referee.
We'll have another two minutes added, and it's Barcelona looking to make the most of it as Messi piles forward. Casemiro fouls him, fairly cynically, and he's on a booking, which means the entire population of Catalonia is around the referee demanding a red card. Pretty lucky to escape without one, however unedifying the crowd scene is.
Real, shuffling into more of 4-4-2 set up following the change, on the back foot again as Suarez crosses to the back post and Jordi Alba shoots wide.
40 mins - So Close
Messi shoots an inch wide via a deflection. No corner, and Messi has his mouth full so can only do the Team America secret signal towards the referee by way of protest. Goal kick.
38 mins Booking, and Bale off
Umtiti has put what Ron Atkinson might have called "a reducer" on Ronaldo and been booked. Bale has limped off but it's Asensio on to replace him rather than Isco.
Ah. Has anybody got Isco's number? Bale, passed fit after two games out, now parked on the turf clutching the ankle again. Gives us a chance to look at the Real goal again and, hat tip lino, Ramos was just about the only Madrid player who was onside.
Real's turn to have a little wobble. Twice in quick succession they're caught playing out from the back with a slack pass - twice Suarez wastes the chance. Perhaps this long range Modric shot, turned aside firmly by Ter Stegen, will settle them back down.
32 mins GOAL!!!!!!! Real Madrid 1 BARCELONA 1
That didn't last long. Messi glides into the penalty area and rolls in the equaliser. Now the top scorer in this fixture's history, one ahead of Di Stefano.
It's a beautiful goal, flowing football, hot knife through butter stuff, and Messi's control and finish was absolutely perfect. First goal in six meetings with Real.
Messi, mouth full of tissue paper, dumped to the turf again. Barcelona free kick and we're back in open play.
27 mins GOAL!!!!! REAL MADRID 1 Barcelona 0
Casemiro scores from close range and Real are, deservedly, in front.
A cleared corner is lofted back into the far post. There's a queue of Real Madrid players standing offside but the assistant decides, quite possibly incorrectly, that Ramos is not one of them. He hits the inside of the post but the ball rolls plum for Casemiro to score into an empty net from close range.
Pique under Bale, concedes a corner, appeals for calm in full on Harry Enfield style.
Benzema's sluggish start to this game continues as he wastes a two on two situation with a slack touch after receiving a pass from Ronaldo who was up in support. Ronaldo will be fine with this I'm sure, not a problem.
Messi is back, looking like an advert for toilet tissue. Ronaldo turns and curls a shot over.
Right, well at one end Ronaldo is shooting low and Ter Stegen produces the best save of the game.
But, at the other, Messi is down and, literally, picking his teeth out of the grass. Blood flowing. Marcelo, replays suggest, has caught him flush in the gob with a flying elbow - unusually for this fixture it does look like a genuine accident.
Physio frantically stuffing cotton wool into Messi's face.
Flying from one end to the other now. Proper football. Benzema at one end, played in after great work by Modric, shoots at Ter Stegen. Immediately Barcelona respond, Suarez shoots wide.
Ronaldo mighty close to threading Benzema through into the area but Barcelona mass ranks and break themselves with Messi gliding past three players before also, just, getting his final ball wrong.
11 mins Yellow card
Less than ideal early booking for Casemiro. A long 79 minutes trying to crowd Messi and Suarez's space while simultaneously walking what we lazy sports hacks who've had a long weekend like to call the disciplinary tightrope lies in store. /cliche
9 mins Barcelona settling down
Having successfully ridden that fast start from Real without shipping a goal Barcelona are now starting to move the ball around and retain possession. Suarez shoots wide of the far post from the edge of the area - 32 goals this season but none in his last four.
Kroos sets Ronaldo away down the right, men up in support but he was only ever going to cut in and shoot from the edge of the box and he drills it straight at the keeper.
Carvajal round the back to the byline, cuts it back, Barcelona survive. Madrid starting fast and dominating.
And so it begins. Ronaldo is the first to hit the deck and turn to the referee. Real Madrid want a penalty, officials say no. Replay pending...
Could easily have been a spot kick. Umtiti, on El Classico debut, hung a leg out, got none of the ball, clipped Ronaldo. As we've come to expect in this fixture, he did hit the deck very easily though. Our referee this evening is the rather splendidly named Alejandro José Hernández Hernández.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia takes to the field, big hug for Ramos, leathers the ball into the stand, and we're ready to go.
Teams are out, going through the handshake rigmarole. We're nearly ready for the start of the second biggest game in Europe this weekend, following Grimsby Town's big 4-1 win against Yeovil yesterday.
Odd Messi stats
Just the 45 goals in 45 games for Lionel Messi this season - similar record to Alvaro Negredo at Middlesbrough - but his El Classico record isn't that brilliant of late.
No goals in six meetings and he's only scored in two of the last dozen games between the two sides - albeit he did bag a hat trick in one of the other two.
Madrid are hunting a La Liga and Champions League double for the first time since the Di Stefano side of the 1950s - 1958 to be precise.
They go into tonight's match three points ahead of Barcelona with a game in hand. Barcelona have a far better goal difference, and if they win tonight they'll also have a better head to head record which is how tied teams are separated at the end of the season.
There are five league games to go, and Barcelona manager Luis Enrique has already confirmed he'll be leaving in the summer. They're in wobbly form - two defeats and a draw in the last four. Real haven't lost in a dozen games in all comps.
Bale's return is bad/great news for Isco who drops down to the bench to accommodate him.
Isco was a Barcelona fan as a youngster, has a dog called Messi, and has been linked with a move to the Nou Camp this summer. Might be one worth sitting out.
Bale is back
Headlines for Real Madrid include the return after a two match injury absence for Wales winger Gareth Bale who starts up front with Benzema and some other bloke.
Real: Navas; Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, nacho; Kroos, Modric, Casemiro; Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo
Subs: Casilla, James, Kovacic, Asensio, Morata, Isco, Danilo
Teams are in
The big talking point all week has been whether Neymar would be allowed to play. His red card in the defeat at Malaga (to go with the 15 yellow cards he's had this season) resulted in a one match ban, extended to three for sarcastically applauding the officials on the way off. Barcelona tried to take their appeal all the way to the Court of Appeal for Sport this weekend but have admitted defeat and he is not playing.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Alcacer
Subs: Cillessen, Denis, Arda, Mascherano, Digne, Gomes, Alena
Well hello everybody and welcome along to our live blog of tonight's 234th El Classico, league leaders Real Madrid hosting chasers Barcelona. Kick off is 19.45.