Ahead of Sunday’s El Clasico, most poll results had Real Madrid billed as favourites to end Barcelona’s quest to defend their league title as it would have put them a massive seven points adrift of the two Madrid sides.
However, it was the Catalan giants who responded in style and scored four against their arch rivals at the Bernabeu amidst a lot of drama in a game which featured three penalties, one red card, seven goals, an altercation between Pepe and Cesc Fabregas and an alleged stamp by Sergio Busquets on Real Madrid’s Portuguese centre-back.
It took seven minutes for the visitors to surge ahead through Andres Iniesta. Dani Carvajal was at fault for drifting inside far too much which allowed Iniesta enough space to shoot while Gareth Bale didn't track back to help out the full-back either.
Thereafter, Madrid did claw their way back into the tie through two Karim Benzema goals but conceded yet again, this time to Lionel Messi. Marcelo should have done better in closing down the Argentine who played a one-two with Neymar before jinking inside his marker to slot the ball into the bottom right corner.
After the break, following Cristiano Ronaldo controversially putting his side into the lead, Sergio Ramos appeared to have clipped Neymar with his knee after the Brazilian was through on goal. Being the last man, referee Alberto Undiano gave the Spanish defender his marching orders in what was his 19th red card and third in a clasico.
It must be noted that following Ramos’ departure, the odds suddenly turned in favour for Barcelona as Madrid had to contend with ten-men for the next 30 minutes.
Things went from bad to worse for the home side after Xabi Alonso clipped Iniesta inside the area after the latter looked to get away from Carvajal. Messi scored the winner from the spot to complete his hat-trick and hand Carlo Ancelotti’s side their first defeat in 32 games.
In the aftermath of the tie, Madrid players pointed fingers at the referee for failing to officiate a match of such importance without bias.
“When you are the best team in the world, you can see there is envy around. We must fight against all that even though there are things that you cannot fight against. Undiano is a backslider. He repeats offense. It's an insolence,” said a miffed Ramos who has the record number of red cards in Madrid’s history.
While certainly Neymar and Iniesta made a meal of the two tackles inside the box, what cannot be denied is that Madrid gave them an opportunity to. It isn’t the first time Ramos has been sent-off and knowing that Neymar has a tendency to go to ground quite easily, the experienced defender should have avoided making any untoward contact with the Brazilian.
His act got Madrid into trouble with the ‘double punishment’ served of being a man down with a goal conceded. Until that point, the momentum was with the home side as they looked to kill the game. Ramos’ card turned the tide and allowed Barcelona to probe into the spaces with the introduction of Pedro and Alexis Sanchez. They also had one less attacking player to contend with, which eased their defensive headaches considerably.
Alonso too didn’t learn from his mistakes in the past as he clumsily brought down Iniesta when the latter was going nowhere. Also, Madrid were guilty of squandering their chances. While Ronaldo had an unusually quiet game despite the penalty goal he scored, Gareth Bale never really got into the groove. He made a couple of runs forward and did tee up Benzema on one occasion only for the Frenchman to hit it straight against Victor Valdes.
The French striker had a mixed outing. The first goalscoring chance of the game came to Benzema who tried to find the bottom corner but instead dragged his effort wide.
He had another two chances in the 11th and 12th minutes with the latter of the two being the worst of the lot. Angel Di Maria, who had a brilliant outing, pulled one back for Benzema who shot it into the stands from barely ten yards out and under no pressure.
The 26-year old had another couple of opportunities before the end of the first half which should have been buried. After the break, Bale set-up Benzema and the Frenchman with only the keeper to beat saw his shot ricochet of the Barcelona custodian who put his body on the line.
Had Benzema not spurned or fluffed the opportunities, the course of the game could have changed. Madrid had eight shots, of which five were taken by Benzema, on target to Barcelona’s six which included two penalties.
Madrid failed to make their dominance count and made mistakes at the back. There's no point blaming the referee and absolving oneself.
Ancelotti rightly noted after the game when he said, “We committed small mistakes and that's why we lost.” Time to introspect for Madristas and move on to the final nine games of La Liga.