It was supposed to be a decaf El Clásico. As it turns out, that’s an oxymoron.
With the La Liga title—which Barça claimed a week ago—having been relegated to a mere afterthought, and with both teams having seemingly little to play for other than pride itself, the Spring 2018 Edition of the beautiful game’s biggest rivalry had, by halftime, become one of the most contested El Clásicos ever.
“There was nothing decaffeinated about it,” Barça manager Ernesto Valverde said after the game, alluding to pre-game suggestions in the media that, with no title in play, this Clásico would be lacking in energy. “It was loaded with caffeine. It was very intense. We know what these games are about and everyone wants to win.”
In the end, a high-strung, see-saw battle ended all-square as ten-man FC Barcelona hung on for a 2-2 draw with arch-rival Real Madrid to stay unbeaten on the season. Barça also extended its all-time La Liga record undefeated streak to 42 games, dating back to last season.
Luis Suarez struck first for Barça in the 10th minute before Cristiano Ronaldo tied it up five minutes later.
But Barça fullback Sergi Roberto, who had assisted Suárez on the game’s first goal, was shown a straight red card following an altercation with Marcelo in first-half injury time, sending Els Blaugrana down to 10 men and setting the stage for a dramatic second-half that ended with each team finding the net once more and leaving the rivalry of rivalries deadlocked at the final whistle.
Nevertheless, while the final, 2-2 score was no aberration, nobody could have guessed that’s how it would have ended when the second half opened with Barça playing shorthanded.
But just eight minutes after play restarted, Suárez wrested a ball away from Raphael Varane in the midfield and raced in on goal, picking out Leo Messi, and the Argentinian maestro did the rest. Messi beat two defenders and goalkeeper Keylor Navas to put Barça up 2-1.
It was Messi’s record-extending 26th career El Clásico goal across all competitions and his 18th goal versus Real Madrid in La Liga, also tops all-time.
The goal also gave Messi a La Liga-leading 33 on the season, thus extending his lead to two goals in the race for the European Golden Shoe.
If Messi’s shorthanded goal hadn’t evoked a deafening roar from the 97,939 fans who had turned out for the final El Clásico of the season, it happened just four minutes later when Andrés Iniesta, playing in the last El Clásico of his illustrious career, was subbed out by Valverde.
Messi had a chance to give Barça some insurance on a breakaway in the 70th, but, as Sergio Ramos closed in, Messi’s tight angle shot was parried by Navas.
Meanwhile, playing a man down had put Barça at a disadvantage that Madrid had been attempting to exploit ever since play resumed. And it finally came in the 73rd, when Marco Asensio found Gareth Bale cutting into the Barça area, with the Welshman beating Jordi Alba to the ball and firing a one-time blast into the upper left corner.
But when the final whistle pierced the crisp Mediterranean night, Barça remained unbeaten. The players congregated in the center circle to celebrate the draw— as well as the Copa del Rey and league titles that preceded it.
“It’s tough playing down a man, especially against Madrid,” Suárez said after the game. “But the team did a spectacular job.”