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Mar 23, 2014

Three Things: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona

Lionel Messi scored Barcelona's first hat trick at the Bernabeu as the visitors tallied an epic 4-3 win to pull themselves back into the title race. Here are three thoughts from another wild, unforgettable Clasico ...

1. Living up to the hype

Sunday's latest duel needed little introduction but given Real Madrid and Barcelona's recent form in La Liga, there were more storylines than usual. Barca's uncharacteristic league hiccups in 2014 -- a 1-1 draw at Levante, defeats vs. Valencia, Real Sociedad and Real Valladolid -- exposed some troubling flaws in Gerardo Martino's side while also allowing Los Blancos and Atletico to assume a modicum of control in the title race.

With four points splitting the rivals and Atleti leading things on goal difference following a functional 2-0 win at 10-man Betis earlier on Sunday, things at the Bernabeu couldn't have been more finely poised.

Yet neither side appeared overly interested in squeezing out a result and in the end, Barcelona's breathless, controversial victory has created yet another massive twist to the Spanish title race.

From the off, all 22 players were firm in their commitment to attack, speed and careless defending. There were tricks, tumbles, big decisions and chaos. Though partisan supporters will have been pushed to the brink at the chaos, it made for brilliant viewing.

After seven minutes, Barca had their lead -- winning possession cheaply in the Real half gave Lionel Messi room to run at a backpedaling back four. He slid it wide left for Andres Iniesta, who had slipped in behind marker Dani Carvajal, before the Spanish stalwart thundered it beyond a helpless Diego Lopez and in off the underside of the crossbar.

The early goal didn't wither Real, nor did it infuse Martino's men with a sense of caution. And so, the hosts struck back. Two goals in four minutes, each the product of Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema. With a smoothness, the pair combined brilliantly in quick succession to put Barca on their heels.

First, Di Maria's menacing cross found the French striker in the 6-yard box and he easily outleapt Javier Mascherano to head home. (Victor Valdes got a hand to it but couldn't keep it out.) Four minutes later, Di Maria's cut-back from the left was less dangerous -- until Mascherano missed his header, allowing Benzema to control and volley from close range.

Away from home and 2-1 down against a confident, well-balanced side, Barca showed composure and purpose in clawing back. Messi and Neymar combined inside the box before the Argentine cracked a low shot beyond Lopez from 10 yards out. Ten minutes after the break, Real seized yet another lead as Dani Alves fouled Cristiano Ronaldo in the area -- more on that below -- which the Portuguese genius rifled under Valdes' despairing dive. It would prove to be the least dramatic moment of a wild affair.

On 64 minutes, Messi caught Real's high defensive line unawares with a perfectly weighted through-ball for Neymar to chase, cutting in from the right flank behind Marcelo. As Sergio Ramos tracked back, Neymar's run across the defender ended with the Brazilian falling at Lopez's feet. Penalty, red card for Ramos and Messi's second goal of the game.

With Benzema sacrificed for an extra defender in Raphael Varane, Real lost their impetus and the focal point of their attack, allowing Barca to seize the initiative. Dani Alves cracked the post with 15 minutes remaining. With the Bernabeu crowd feeling the tension, Barca won another penalty six minutes from time, Messi calmly rifling it into the roof of the net.

Seven goals and thanks to two Clasico wins this season, Barca are now just one point behind the two Madrid teams. Nine games remaining. You'd be a fool to bet on how this season ends.

2. Benzema's production not enough While Messi -- now the Clasico's all-time top scorer with 20 goals -- Barcelona and, to a certain extent, the referee will glean the bulk of the headlines from this manic match, some praise must be given to one of Real's more-maligned players this season.

Criticism of Benzema has been steady all season. Deemed to be not the answer up front and frequently deputized by the likes of Jese and Alvaro Morata, Benzema did his part on Sunday with two fine goals. That said, he could have had three more in the first half, frequently using his size advantage over Mascherano to get into scoring positions and profit from Di Maria's fine service. Yet the red card to Ramos denied him of a chance to have the final word. Carlo Ancelotti's decision to pull a striker for a center-back makes sense but he'd have been better served removing the subdued Gareth Bale, who offered little from wide positions, and preserving a threat in the final third in order to keep Barcelona from pushing too far forward.

As good as Messi was in seizing yet another accolade for his absurd resume, Benzema's steady forward play kept Real in the hunt. But Ancelotti's decision -- along with those made by the referee -- was arguably just as crucial to Sunday's result.

3. Respect the ref? Three penalties, one red card. Could a Clasico pass without anything less? And yet of all the monumental incidents, only one appeared legitimate. One cannot fault referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco too much for his part in settling Sunday's game, though it's impossible to argue that his interventions were anything less than vital to the final score.

The first spot kick simply wasn't; though Alves visibly tripped Ronaldo as he tried to wizard his way into the box, the foul happened outside the area. The second appeared equally contentious; Neymar did brilliantly to ghost in front of Sergio Ramos but the contact between the two, a tangle of legs as the Brazilian cut across his marker, appeared difficult to attribute solely to the Real defender.

Undiano Mallenco had little choice on penalty No. 3, as Iniesta wedged and mugged between Carvajal and Alonso as 10-man Real tried to stay level.

On another day, in another situation, with another referee, perhaps all three calls are made again. Maybe none, maybe one. Though the Blaugrana deserve full credit for their persistent, passionate performance with their backs seemingly against the wall heading into the game, it's easy to see why Real's players and fans might see it differently.

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