Don Andres and The Magic of Messi
It was a Super Clasico that finally lived up to the billing.
In recent memory, the clashes between Barcelona and Real Madrid have failed to live up to expectation.
This one had everything.
The atmosphere in the Santiago Bernabeu was supercharged with passion, excitement, and anticipation as the two biggest teams in world football took the stage.
It was the 4th minute of the match, Neymar was sent clean in on goal by Lionel Messi, but frustratingly the young Brazilian could not capitalize. Just a minute later, Andres Iniesta gave away possession at the top of the Barca penalty box and it was Karim Benzema’s turn to spurn a chance.
Iniesta would soon make amends, he received an incisive pass from Messi that he touched into the area and smashed against the underside of the crossbar, sending Cules around the world into ecstasy.
It was a fantastic first half of football from both sides playing at breakneck speed.
In the 13th minute, Angel Di Maria produced a nimble, silky, agile run into the box and provided an opportunity for Benzema but again the Frenchman could not convert.
It was back and forth, chances for each team, Sergio Busquets sent Messi in one-on-one with Diego Lopez but the Argentine showed that he is indeed human (we think?) and screwed the chance wide. Just a few build-ups later and Messi created another chance for Neymar but the mercurial youngster could only muff another sight at goal.
It was the 20th minute when Madrid drew level.
Again, more brilliant work from Di Maria caused problems, as he swung in a delightful, measured cross to the head of Benzema, and this time the Frenchman could celebrate as the power of the header was too much for Victor Valdez’s open palm. Valdez looked as if felt he could have done better and I tend to agree. The reaction time was minimal but going with a strong punch towards the sideline could have steered it toward the right side of the post.
Di Maria and Benzema weren’t done yet. Only two minutes later, they linked up again as Di Maria clipped in a smart ball just above the receding hairline of a leaping Javier Macherano. Benzema controlled the ball off his thigh and lashed a volley past Valdes.
Barca had to wait until the 42nd minute before drawing level. It was the one-of-a-kind quick, one-two combination vision of Messi that saw him interchange passes with Neymar and drive home the equalizer. It appeared that Daniel Carvajal may have got the final touch that was returned to Messi but Neymar deserves credit for distracting the Madrid defenders in such a crucial phase of the game.
The first half ended with another chance for Benzema. This time Carvajal provided the perfect cross. The free header was directed downward to the right of Valdes, and would have beaten him, but the French No. 9 missed everything.
The whistle blew for half-time and there was a collective global exhale as viewers far and wide were able to digest a frenetic first half.
We’d just seen the best players in the world playing sublime football and the best part was knowing there was another 45 minutes left to play.
The second half didn’t disappoint.
Early on, Gareth Bale went on one of his mazy, trademark runs to setup Benzema, but Valdes denied the Frenchman.
It was just a few ticks on the clock later that Cristiano Ronaldo outfoxed Dani Alves to earn a penalty. Slight controversy here: the infraction appeared to occur just on the edge of the box and all the recent talk of continuation aside -- I believe the free kick should have been awarded at the location of the foul -- the foul was outside and therefore not a penalty.
It was 3-2 Madrid. Things were looking up for Los Blancos.
But it was in the 64th minute that La Pulga crafted an otherworldly pass for Neymar.
There was an exacting weight on the ball that changed the outcome of the match - a weight that would have made Robbie Robertson jealous.
This was a masterful, clinically paced, perfectly hit pass that allowed Neymar to maintain stride, cut inside the path of Sergio Ramos, and draw the foul that changed the outcome of El Clasico and perhaps the 2013/14 La Liga season.
Ramos saw red and Messi dispatched the pen.
3-3 and Madrid down to 10 men.
Raphael Varane was brought on for Benzema to try and secure the point but it was too late.
Barca further punished the the tiring and now mentally depleted Madrid side with their exhausting triangular possession and Dani Alves drilled a shot off the left post.
Cules didn't have to wait long however.
It was in the 83rd minute when Don Andres cast his spell. El Illusionista split two Madrid players, nutmegging Xabi Alonso in the process, and was hacked down in the box to earn Barca's second penalty of the match.
Leo took a deep breath and delivered a rocket to the upper right corner of the goal.
It was a hat-trick in the biggest moment of all, his sixth goal in two games, and as he ran towards the corner flag and looked to the heavens, he lovingly kissed the badge of his beloved FC Barcelona.
The Winners and Losers:
Leo Messi continues to prove that he is the best to ever play the game.
Today he became both the all-time leading scorer and assist provider in the history of El Clasico.
Stop to consider that.
Consider all the greats that have suited up for these mammoth encounters and you realize that his is the best ever doing it on the biggest stage of all.
More records shattered:
-Messi becomes the only player in history to have scored two hat-tricks in El Clasico.
-Messi moves into second all time on the La Liga scoring charts
-Messi becomes the only player to have scored a hat-trick against a team coached by Carlo Ancelotti.
This summer when Messi lifts the World Cup in his greatest arch-rivals homeland there will be no one who can dispute that he is the all-time greatest to have played the game.
No one - including Pele.
Iniesta may well be the most gifted player, aside from Leo Messi, on planet earth.
The first touch, his passing range, the finishing and dribbling, his ability to spin-away from defenders when there looks no escape, the vision, the insight; Iniesta is easily one of the top 10 players in the history of the sport.
I firmly believe that.
He infects his fans with hoots of joy -- as he did today when he put the ball through the legs of the red-bearded Alonso to win the second penalty -- and shouts of VAMOS! as he glides across the pitch.
There is no classier player in the current era than Don Andres. He has more tread on the tires than Xavi, but when he does decide to hang it up or move on from Barca, he will be harder to replace than his Spanish teammate.
The hulking defender was sensational in defense. He dropped deep most of the match to read and pick off the Madrid attacks extremely well; mopping up for his teammates when passes were played in behind to space. Pique cleared off the line when Benzema’s left-footed shot had beaten Valdes in the first half and overall had a very strong match at the back.
Neymar turned in another sub-par performance. His touch was loose and his decision making poor in the first half. He held onto the ball too long at times and never got into the flow.
Even more disappointing, his finishing was lacking as well. Neymar had two clear chances in the first 20 minutes of the match that he failed to take advantage of. He couldn’t even force Lopez into difficult saves.
Gerardo Martino chose to play him on the right and he never looked comfortable cutting inside to his favored left foot.
It’s easy to argue that with one run Neymar’s ability changed the whole match; but it’s also easy to argue that Pedro or Alexis Sanchez might have done more with the two chances spurned by the Brazilian early in the first half.
Karim Benzema had two goals and by many standards most people would think he had a great match. The problem with Benzema however continues to be a lack of efficiency. His teammates are forced to create multiple openings, bordering on double digits, before Benzema finds the mark.
The Frenchman has scored a number of goals this season and is having his good return but I believe his poor conversion rate continues to put him on the transfer list each season.
Madrid are still well positioned to be successful on all three major fronts but Ancelotti will demand an upper echelon striker in the next window.
This was their time to further reel in La Decima. This was the time to bring the elusive title within reach. They’d been on fire in Europe. They were playing at home against an inconsistent Barca that the Madrid players claimed had lost their edge.
This was the moment for the club to reassert its dominance over the Catalans.
Los Blancos may still wind up winning La Liga – but they’ve given the impetus back to Barca.
All in all, it was a Super Clasico that will be remembered for the brilliance of Don Andres and the magic of Messi.
Two majestic footballers who continue to astound with their epic performances.