By Shane Thomas
REAL MADRID 0-2 BARCELONA (Barcelona lead 2-0 on aggregate)
A double blast of late inspiration from Lionel Messi lit up a turgid game in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Messi scored both Barcelona goals as ten-man Real Madrid suffered defeat in the third of four series of classicos between the two Spanish giants.
The match brought out the very worst in Spanish football. The build-up to the game surrounded Barca head coach Pep Guardiola's stunning pre-match press conference in which he verbally responded to the usual aspersions cast by Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. And the rancourous feeling between the two coaches had clearly spread to the teams. Rather than marvelling at the technical fluency of the players, the crowd and worldwide television audience witnessed a plethora of cynical fouls, play-acting and gamesmanship.
Madrid had set themselves up to frustrate Barcelona and disrupt their play at any opportunity. It would be churlish for people to criticise Los Blancos for this as many were praising them when these same tactics triumphed over Barca to win the Kings Cup seven days ago. Where one could lambast them however, was their propensity to bend the laws of the game. It ruined the spectacle, and was only exacerbated by Barcelona's willingness to follow suit. The Catalans are not always the virtuous angels of football that they like to present themselves as. Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves are fine footballers but not averse to indulging in the game's dark arts. Indeed, it seemed as if the whole team had been dragged down to Real's level. The half ended with a mass brawl between both sides in the tunnel. It summed up what had been a miserable encounter.
The second-half began with Real keeping Barcelona at arm's length with the Catalans unable to shake their attacking rhythm from staccato to legato. But on the hour mark, Pepe was harshly sent-off for a foul on Alves and Mourinho's game plan was now in tatters. The Portugese soon followed Pepe in being dismissed as he protested to the match officials.
With fifteen minutes remaining, an instantly forgettable match was sprinkled with stardust. Substitute Ibrahim Affelay took advantage of a slip from Marcelo to race clear down Real's left hand side, and his cross was expertly converted by Messi, who had stolen a march on Xabi Alonso & Sergio Ramos at the near post. While it won't be the overriding memory of the game, Messi deserves credit for the way he took the goal. It showed a killer instinct normally associated with the likes of an Ian Rush or a Gerd Muller. Not only does the little Argentine have mesmerising skill but a lethal touch to match any centre-forward.
And in the closing moments, we saw this mesmerising skill in all its splendour. After a perfect lay-off from Busquests, Messi set off on a dribble as if fired from a piece of elastic. Leaving three white shirts choking on his fumes, Messi cushioned the ball into the corner past Iker Casillas and effectively ended the tie. He still needs trophies to back up his undoubted ability, but this was Messi's 51st and 52nd goals of an incredible season. With every match he gets closer to the immortals of the sport.
In a game that showed up the very worst of the "win at all costs" mentality prevalent in top-level sport, Messi was the man who rose above it all. Barcelona showed tonight that they are no angels, but one of their number certainly is. Their number 10.
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