Lionel Messi sinks Real Madrid in thriller to keep Barcelona in race

The very last kick of the clásico could not have been more perfectly executed nor more dramatically delivered, Lionel Messi guiding the ball inside the post to take his team top. It was the 500th goal of his career and few have been more significant. It prompted Luis Enrique to say: “He is the best player in history.”

Just when it seemed all was lost there may be life in La Liga; there is life in Barcelona too. With five games to go they are leaders on their head-to-head record and, although Real Madrid have a game in hand and Zinedine Zidane rightly says “we still depend on ourselves,” nothing feels impossible now.

Thirty seconds earlier it had done. Barcelona thought they had been denied. There was a kind of crushing inevitability about the way James Rodríguez scored with five minutes to go. His goal made it 2-2, a scoreline that, had it stood, would have all but clinched the title, and in an appropriate way. This was a portrait of Madrid this season, a late goal from a substitute, another comeback, fans erupting in joy, Madrid, down to 10 men after Sergio Ramos’s 77th-minute red card, doing it again.

In fact, it was Barcelona who did it again. With the final seconds slipping away Sergi Roberto ran from deep and just kept on running. André Gomes went with him and so did Jordi Alba. When he pulled it back, Messi curled his shot into the corner. He had a black eye from the last game, a bleeding mouth from this one and he was still standing at the north end holding his shirt out, disbelief engulfing everything, when the referee blew the final whistle. “He is incredibly decisive at all times,” Luis Enrique, the Barcelona manager, added. “I have seen a lot of football, it is a great pleasure that he is one of us.”

What a game this had been, and what a finish it had – one that reflected the 92 minutes that went before. It had been wonderful, wild and open to the end. Emotions swung with attacks. A classic clásico in which, if Messi stood above them all, it was not because others did not stand tall. It had been captivating from start to finish. “It was a match between two wonderful teams that gave everything to win and in truth either side could have been victorious,” Luis Enrique said.

Madrid went straight at Barcelona and they were appealing for a penalty after 91 seconds, when Cristiano Ronaldo was caught by Samuel Umtiti, and that proved just the start of a breathless game. Two teams went for each other and it was hard to keep up, so much was happening.

Just listing the shots could fill a page: Ronaldo, Andrés Iniesta, Luis Suárez twice, Ronaldo again, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, all inside 20 minutes. Marc-André Ter Stegen and Keylor Navas started making saves early and were not about to stop. The game was not half an hour old when Madrid got the opener, Ter Stegen punching out a corner that Marcelo turned back in for Ramos to nudge against the post before Casemiro followed up.

Thirty minutes had only just passed when the lead was gone again. Suárez let Sergio Busquets’ pass run through his legs and Messi, dashing through the middle from deep where he had taken hold of the game, stepped beyond Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal and struck under Navas. Three sharp, smooth touches taken with a bandage still in his mouth – there since Marcelo had caught him with an elbow.

Still it flowed. Modric was stopped by Ter Stegen and Bale curled a shot over but then departed feeling his calf. Messi’s shot deflected wide and a promising break was ended by Casemiro, as was often the way. Next Alba was unable to find Suárez alone in the area and from the corner Navas missed the ball. He was fortunate that Messi did too, steering a volley wide from two yards.

Half-time did nothing to slow them down. Ter Stegen tipped wide from Toni Kroos, then blocked Benzema’s header. Paco Alcácer toe-poked straight at Navas, who then saved superbly from Gerard Piqué’s header. And so it went, on and on.

Marco Asensio had replaced Bale, adding even more quality to this glittering cast, even in the absence of the suspended Neymar, and he laid across to Ronaldo alone in front of goal but the Portuguese, reaching back, hooked over. Navas then blocked Suárez and Messi.

Still, it did not let up, Ter Stegen saving from Asensio before Ivan Rakitic stepped inside from the right and sent the ball arrowing into the far corner. Barcelona were a goal up and a man up too when Ramos was sent off for taking off to land a two-footed tackle on Messi.

Suárez and Gomes then combined to give Piqué the kind of opportunity that he, arch anti-Madridista and wind-up merchant in chief, dreams of but he smashed the ball straight at Navas. With 10 minutes left it was not done, although it might have been when yet another Messi run ended with yet another Navas save. There was still much to come, in fact. Even the finale proved not to be the finale at all. James turned in Marcelo’s cross with five minutes to go and, while there were even chances for Madrid to win, a draw would have been enough; they would had done it, one hand on their first title in five years. Or so everyone thought.

This time, though, there was one more last, dramatic twist.

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