Lionel Messi punishes Real Madrid to give Barcelona title lift
This time Lionel Messi scored only once and it was not a particularly special goal, yet it could prove as significant as the four against Arsenal. The architect of Barcelona's victory was the peerless Xavi Hernández but it was Messi's 40th goal of a spectacular season that set Barcelona on the way to victory in the match that was declared the title decider. Real Madrid's 14-game winning run at the Bernabéu came to an end and the feeling as disappointed fans left early was that so too did their chances of winning the league.
At full time Barcelona's players formed a huddle and bounced up and down celebrating, before saluting their fans high in the north end of the stadium. There are still seven games remaining but Pep Guardiola's side now have a three-point lead, plus an immovable head-to-head advantage having beaten Madrid twice. Such has been the dominance of Spain's two footballing behemoths, who between them had collected 67 of the last 72 points, that it is understandable that most believe that lead is unassailable.
For all the build-up, this was not a classic. Guardiola will not care. Absences and the ferocity of their rivalry make the victory more satisfying. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic ruled out with a torn muscle, Guardiola revolutionised his starting XI, with Dani Alves shifted out of position, pushed into an advance role as part of a front three with Messi and Pedro. It rarely worked and at the start of the second half the coach changed his mind, returning Alves to full-back, swapping Carles Puyol from right to left, and advancing Maxwell.
With Messi dropping off, linking up play, Barcelona were often effectively playing with no forward. It was a sadly eloquent comment on Guardiola's lack of faith in Thierry Henry. To start with, Barcelona looked toothless but ultimately the key to this game would be in the middle. And Messi was able expose Madrid. He should have had a penalty after 11 minutes, yet those minutes were difficult times for Barcelona. Madrid began with intensity, snapping into challenges, quick and direct. Barcelona were unable to settle into their normal rhythm of possession. For a while, they appeared incapable of escaping their own half. Even Víctor Valdés was forced to hit long – and the ball invariably came straight back.
The problem for Madrid was that despite some promising breaks that drew huge roars of anticipation, they created little. It was as if the obsession with closing Barcelona down, with screeching into challenges, had blinded them to the need to build attacks. The asphyxiating pressure they applied to Barcelona applied to them, too. The pace was frenetic but there were more fouls than flow.
When Madrid did break, Gerard Piqué in particular showed pace, timing and judgment, to keep up with Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese was too often guilty of imprecision. Much of what Madrid did went through him and he continued to run at Barcelona throughout, demanding the ball, determined to drag his side back into it, but this was not his finest night. One second-half free-kick, from a long way out, found its way through as Madrid chanced a way back into the game, but Valdés saved comfortably.
For all their discomfort, Barcelona did ease their way into contact with the ball, even if the unfamiliarity of the front three stymied them. Alves, denied the chance to bomb on from deep, rarely judged his runs right and Pedro was unable to impose on Sergio Ramos. But then there was Messi.
The breakthrough happened in the 20th minute. Messi came inside, rolled the ball into Xavi and continued his run. Xavi's beautifully clipped ball over the defence found Messi dashing into the area. The control on the chest was enough to take him beyond Raúl Albiol and to the edge of the six-yard box where he squeezed it past Iker Casillas. It was his 40th goal of the season, his 27th in the league. It was the first shot on goal. When Madrid had their first, 20 minutes later, Gonzalo Higuaín blazed wildly over as he ran on to Ramos's speared free-kick.
In the second half, Ronaldo sprinted at Barça but again his shot was too easy for Valdés. It was the story of the game. Valdés made eight saves; none were truly remarkable. And then Barcelona were two up. Again, Xavi was the supplier. His superbly weighted ball sent Pedro through beyond Alvaro Arbeloa and, dashing into the area, he opened up his body and, left-footed, steered the ball cleverly past Casillas.
Guti was already prepared to come on. Now, there was even less time to waste. But despite a late strike from Raúl that appeared to be wrongly ruled out, it was Barcelona who should have added to the scoring and, oddly, Messi who did not do so. Twice Xavi found him with exquisite passes; twice he was denied by Casillas. Barcelona, though, were not to be denied.