Barcelona have one foot in the Champions League final thanks to a pair of goals by Lionel Messi that consigned bitter rivals Real Madrid to a 2–0 home defeat in the all-Spanish semifinal first leg clash at the Bernabeu on Wednesday.
The match was an ill-tempered, scrappy affair strewn with cynical fouls and petty arguments, that was in danger of bringing the game into disrepute. But then, the world’s best player stepped up to ensure that everyone will now remember the encounter for a truly special goal, courtesy of the little Argentine international’s rare genius.
Both goalkeepers had an early touch with Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez volleying crisply from 25 yards straight into the arms of Real’s Iker Casillas after four minutes, then almost immediately afterwards at the other end Cristiano Renaldo took a long range pot shot that proved routine for Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes.
On 11 minutes, David Villa, playing on the right, cut inside and unleashed a left-footer that flew just wide of the far post.
For the most part, however, the game was played in the middle third of the field with Barcelona typically dominating possession, employing their short passing game to patiently build and look for an opening. Real were content to sit back with men behind the ball, waiting for a turnover and the opportunity to break forward quickly.
The best chance of the first half came after 26 minutes when Messi sneaked in from the right, feeding Xavi who had made a run into the area. Casillas was called upon to make a smart one-handed save low to his left.
In first half stoppage time a powerful Ronaldo drive from all of 30 yards swerved and dipped causing problems for Valdes who failed to hold it. The ball rebounded out, Valdes saved a second effort with his legs, but no further attempt from Real was possible as the flag had been raised for offside.
The arguments and acrimony continued after the whistle with Barcelona reserve goalkeeper Jose Pinto being red carded during the interval after an altercation in the tunnel.
When the players returned, the match followed a similar pattern to the first half. Real defender Sergio Ramos received a yellow card for an uncompromising challenge on Messi in the 53rd minute, and he will now be ineligible for the second leg.
Then just past the hour Pepe was given a straight red for a heavy tackle on Dani Alves, who himself had already been booked. Madrid was down to 10 men and will be without Pepe for the return match at the Nou Camp. Jose Mourinho was not smiling, and indeed was banished to the stands for his protestations.
With the extra man, Barcelona began to stretch their opponents. In the 68th minute a David Villa shot from the right-hand side of the box came off the outstretched palm of Casillas onto Pedro Rodriguez who was charging in. It came to the Barcelona player too quickly for him to exercise any sort of control and ball ricocheted wide.
Then at the 77-minute mark, the ball was played out to Barcelona substitute Ibrahim Afellay on the right. The speedy Dutchman, aided by a slip from Real defender Marcello, delivered a fine low cross to the near post where Messi nipped in front of the defenders and popped the ball home.
If Messi’s first was a typical goal-poacher’s strike, his second 10 minutes later was something else entirely and needs to be seen rather than described in words. He gathered the ball only just beyond the centre circle and simply dribbled past the entire Real defense before sliding the ball past Casillas with his right foot from an acuteangle on the right of the six-yard box.
This was a moment of pure genius reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s second goal against England (not the “hand of God”) in the 1986 World Cup. The match was a very long way from meriting the title of “El Clasico” but everybody who witnessed this battle will remember Messi’s second goal for many a long year. It has almost certainly guaranteed that his team will contest this year’s Champions League final.