Lionel Messi torments Madrid as Barcelona breathe life in La Liga race
Lionel Messi delivered a sensational display to hand Barcelona a 3-2 win against Real Madrid on Sunday, in one of the most entertaining Clasicos in years.
Real Madrid were three points ahead of their rivals atop La Liga with one game in hand, but Zinedine Zidane still wheeled out his big guns in an attacking 4-3-3, and was rewarded when Casemiro hit the opener.
But Barca had Messi who, in Neymar's absence, was handed a free role behind the strikers in a 4-3-1-2. The Argentine terrorised Madrid, drawing fouls and bookings, overloading the central midfield area and netting a superb equaliser for 1-1.
In a frenetic second half, both teams pressed high and vacated huge gaps as full-backs flew forward untracked. That helped Ivan Rakitic make it 2-1 before Sergio Ramos got sent off for a lunge on Messi, only for James Rodriguez to pull Madrid level late on.
That seemed to have secured a crucial point for Madrid, but then their pressing backfired as Messi crowned his night with a late winner.
Carvajal troubles Alcacer
Both managers had big calls to make before kick-off. Zidane started the doubtful Gareth Bale, while Luis Enrique -- who had Neymar suspended -- made Barca defend in 4-4-2, with striker Paco Alcacer playing as a left winger before joining Luis Suarez up front in a 4-3-1-2 on the ball.
While that seemed to hand Madrid a numerical advantage in midfield, the more interesting aspect centred on their forward trio. Rather than sticking to positions, Bale started on the left then switched to the right, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema alternated between drifting wide and waiting in the centre. Full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal also stormed forward.
Their best weapon early on was Carvajal, who troubled Alcacer. On two minutes, the right-back smashed in a volleyed cross to Ronaldo, whose penalty shout got turned down. Another two minutes on, Carvajal played a one-two past Alcacer to chip in a cross that was cleared.
Madrid also hit Barca on the break. Ronaldo cut inside to test Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Benzema missed a chance and Bale squandered a fine Toni Kroos pass. Then Carvajal popped up again to find Ronaldo, who won the corner from which Casemiro struck.
That denoted how Carvajal played a more advanced role in the first half than Marcelo, who faced the more disciplined Ivan Rakitic.
Central Messi torments Madrid
The 4-3-1-2 suited Messi. He kept dropping deep and found small gaps in which he started attacks. This was bad news for Casemiro, who fouled him and got booked early on 12 minutes. Soon Messi skipped past him again, then drew another foul.
Messi was also left spitting blood after an elbow from Marcelo, yet that did not stop him from ghosting into the box to slide a superb equaliser past Keylor Navas. Just before half time, he popped up on the right to play in Suarez, whose cross was fired wide by Jordi Alba. Seconds later Casemiro fouled him yet again and was lucky not to see card.
As the game opened up in the second half, Messi continued to dominate. Madrid pressed higher and Casemiro often pushed up on Sergio Busquets, leaving Messi free to drop off the centre-backs and pick up the ball. Granted such freedom, he tested Navas twice, got Sergio Ramos sent off, then fired home in stoppage time to register his 500th goal for the club.
Alba overloads flank, Asensio counters
Much of the chaotic second period was owed to Zidane, who seemed to have no problem with Ronaldo and Benzema hardly tracking back. On 39 minutes, Marco Asensio had replaced the injured Bale, and he didn't show much interest in helping out his defence either.
That created situations in which unmarked Barca full-backs drew out Madrid central midfielders, which created imbalances elsewhere. This particularly happened down the left with Asensio and Alba.
On 56 minutes, a low Alba cross was extended to Alcacer who fired straight at Navas, and it was also Alba who found Messi just before Rakitic scored. Late on, Alba set up Messi for the winner, by which time he had completed more final-third passes than any other Barca player.
The flip side was that Asensio stood ready in advanced positions when Madrid broke forward, which they did often. On 47 minutes, he combined with Carvajal to force Gerard Pique into a last-ditch clearance. Later, he crossed for Ronaldo, who somehow missed from close range. Asensio had further chances, and his attacking interpretation of the role, alongside Benzema and Ronaldo, opened up the game.
Madrid pressing backfires
The same could also be said about Madrid's pressing. They often tried to close down Barca early, with Casemiro pushing up on Busquets. On one occasion, they succeeded and won the ball, before Marcelo immediately stormed forward to cross for Benzema, whose header was saved by Ter Stegen. It was hardly circumspect stuff.
Unfortunately for Zidane, it did not always work. Barca were slick in their passing and Messi often managed to drop into space. In fact Madrid missed all but one of their attempted tackles in the opposition half during the second period, and the result was often that they hacked down Messi, as Ramos did when he got dismissed on 77 minutes. Just four minutes later, Mateo Kovacic, who had replaced Casemiro, also cut Messi down and got booked.
Still, at 2-1 down and with 10 men, Zidane had to attack. Rather than bringing on a defender, he moved Kovacic to centre-back and put on Rodriguez in what loosely resembled a 4-4-1. Barca kept their 4-4-2 structure without the ball, but hardly shut up shop, and Madrid engineered dangerous counters at a time when Barca should have stayed more compact. Five minutes from time, Marcelo crossed for Rodriguez to make it 2-2.
While Madrid should have protected a valuable point at that stage, it was in tune with their second half approach to push up when Barca had a throw near their own corner flag. A Sergi Roberto run pierced their pressure to create a six vs. three situation, from which Messi made it 3-2.
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