Barcelona’s run at La Liga’s first perfect season has one more high hurdle.
The league champions welcome storied rival Real Madrid to Camp Nou Sunday for the latest edition of El Clasico. Barcelona captured the league title in its last match but still has eyes on doing something no other team has done before in Spain’s top flight. Lionel Messi & Co. enter the match 26-0-8 in La Liga this season and on a league-record 41-game unbeaten run. Its last loss in La Liga came April 8, 2017 at Malaga.
Real Madrid, which labored through part of the league season but got it together and reached a fourth Champions League final in five years, would love nothing more than to play spoiler while also having an eye on catching Atletico Madrid for second place in the league.
The first few minutes began in expected fashion, with Barcelona controlling possession and Real Madrid holding and looking to counter. In the first three minutes, Luis Suarez picked up Messi’s pass from inside the box and fired but ended up deflected for a corner. Los Blancos looked to jump out of their half at any opportunity with the ball, looking to find Ronaldo, mainly on the left hand side, but Barça held.
After pressure amounted, Barcelona broke the deadlock with a fantastic finish from the Uruguayan, thanks to Sergi Roberto’s cross from the right handside. But Real Madrid answered almost immediately as Ronaldo’s back-heel started a great play that ended up with Benzema who gave it back to the Portugal star and followed it with an equalizer.
Ronaldo began to feel some discomfort with his ankle but pulled through as the match caught up with more steam. Real Madrid got more comfortable as the minutes progressed and the stadium could feel it. Gareth Bale created an incredible amount of danger due to his pace and as Barcelona lost possession in the midfield, Madrid capitalized. Just before halftime, Luka Modric found Ronaldo with a lovely pass in the box but Ter Stegen came out early enough to stop any danger.
After thirty minutes, Modric and Jordi Alba got caught in a scuffle, which luckily for both players ended in just a stern talking to from the official.
Benzema and Ronaldo were in complete sync, working the flanks and controlling most of the offensive creativity as we approached the 35th minute and Los Blancos were the ones with more possession, while Barça looked to counter. A Messi free-kick found Samuel Umtiti, but the center-back couldn’t bring it down.
In the 40th, Karim Benzema once again came from the left handside and tried to curl it past Ter Stegen but the shot went just wide. Regardless, the home side clearly struggled to protect its box in the first half. After Keylor Navas just about stopped Messi in the box, things heated even more when Luis Suarez and Sergio Ramos both received yellow cards. After the replay, it seemed as if Ramos elbowed Suarez after the Uruguayan released the ball to Messi, thus launching a few pushes between both players. Lionel Messi remembered the attack on his team-mate and moments later he himself was booked for a late challenge on the Madrid defender.
The heated battle got even more physical as just before the end of half time, Samuel Umtiti received a nasty challenge from the back by Gareth Bale. The Welsh man, was lucky to not receive a red. Literally seconds later, Sergi Roberto received a red card after a deliberate hit on Marcelo.
The first half ended with tremendous intensity and Ernesto Valverde had it all to do as he now had to rally his team with 10 men.
The second 45 minutes gave away for Cristiano Ronaldo as his ankle obviously kept bothering him, meaning that a switch was inevitable. Marco Asensio replaced him as the whistle blew. Meanwhile, Philipe Coutinho left for Nelson Semedo for more cover. As expected, the match took a different rhythm as Barcelona played a deeper role while Real Madrid looked to take more control. In the 52ns minute, however, magic happened as Lionel Messi took advantage of great play from Luis Suarez on the left handside, who found the Argentinian, only for La Pulga to finish just inside the box.
Shortly after the goal, Andres Iniesta came off and received a fantastic reception. It was an emotional moment as this was his last ever Clasico as a Barcelona player. Amazingly, the goal became a new sense of energy for Ernesto Valverde’s men as even with a man less, Barcelona kept coming. Just after the hour mark, Messi was fouled just outside the box but his free-kick was blocked.
Real Madrid picked up the tempo, looking once again for the equalizer but it was clear Zinedine Zidane’s men were missing their star. The visitors kept pushing, especially on the wing but there was no one to pick out in the box as the Portuguese’s presence was missed. In the 69th minute, Barcelona countered again as Lionel Messi chased a ball from his own half, while Sergio Ramos couldn’t catch him. But there was Keylor Navas, who stood strong and denied Messi’s shot and Barça’s third.
And it ended up being an important save as Gareth Bale produced a magnificent shot outside the box, making it 2-2.
Shortly after, however, Bale also showed the ugly side of his game as he received a yellow for a reckless challenge on Nelson Semedo. There was also a penalty claim from Marcelo but the referee was having none of it as it seemed way too soft. Navas, once again gave a heroic performance as the Costa Rican stopper saved Messi’s attempt.
With five minutes left, Real Madrid realized the home side was getting tired and gambled on pushing for the winner even though it didn’t stop play due to Luis Suarez not being able to get up after a challenge with Sergio Ramos. It was a tough day at the office for Suarez as he received hostile treatment from Real Madrid. The last moments saw Barça clinging on as Modric tried to pull strings in the final third, but the hosts were holding on.
Paco Alcacer came off for Suarez in injury time, thus receiving a standing ovation from Camp Nou. Moments later, Paulinho drove on the left hand side and getting a corner. Los Blancos cleared and pushed once again, hoping to eradicate Barça’s undefeated season. Bale took an optimistic shot from 25-yards-out, which was deflected for a corner. Desperate attempts from Real Madrid, but in the end, Barcelona held on for the draw.
It was an intense battle, and one where Zidane might reflect on the fact that it was a glorious moment to take three points against a Barcelona who often struggled with 10 men. In the end, Lionel Messi delivered and helped protect a point for this season’s league champions.
At the end of the match, Barcelona players thanked the fans and celebrated their league title, as well as Andres Iniesta’s last season with the club.
Here were the lineups for the match:
Barcelona finishes its season against Villarreal, Levante and Real Sociedad, while Real Madrid will face Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Villarreal prior to its May 26 Champions League final date with Liverpool.