Lionel Messi steps up and delivers a priceless Clasico win for Barcelona
Battered and bruised but still brilliant, Lionel Messi dragged Barcelona from the depths of their resounding Champions League elimination to Juventus to give his team's ailing title bid the kiss of life. The Argentina international had not scored against Real Madrid since his hat-trick in the 4-3 win at the Bernabeu three years ago but the all-time top scorer in this magnificent fixture rarely stays quiet.
Despite the brutal tactics of Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro and even Mateo Kovacic, Real Madrid could not keep Messi down and no-one could have chosen a better scenario or moment for him to strike his 500th goal for Barca. It might just be the goal that reignites the Catalans' title bid -- and their season.
Barca showed real mettle at the Bernabeu, withstanding numerous setbacks during the game and some interesting decisions from referee Alejandro Jose Hernandez Hernandez, who lacked the courage to send off Casemiro before the break. Barca have often been accused of lacking steel but on Sunday night, they stood up and were counted.
By the end of the game, Barca looked to have run out of steam and at some stages one might have suspected it was Luis Enrique's side and not Zinedine Zidane's that had 10 men on the pitch. Perhaps they were just saving their energy for the final moments, however, as so many poured forward to help set up Messi's last-gasp winner.
Manager rating out of 10
5 -- Made the right call with his team selection, deciding against playing Arda Turan despite recovering from injury on the day, something Zidane got hopelessly wrong in starting Bale. Didn't change much during the game although his weak bench left him with little options. Perhaps should have gone for Real's jugular more after Ramos was dismissed, even though Messi's brilliance ensured everything turned out just fine.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 8 -- After misjudging the flight of the ball for Casemiro's opening goal, the German produced one of his best displays for Barca, executing several stunning saves to thwart Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and Marco Asensio. Was always alert to what was going on in front of his area too, making numerous well-timed challenges to clear the danger.
DF Sergi Roberto, 6 -- Looked uncomfortable dealing with Kroos' passes down Barca's right hand side and his passing was imprecise until his courageous, gut-busting run through the middle that sparked Messi's winner.
DF Samuel Umtiti, 6 -- Rode his luck with an early tackle in the area on Ronaldo but regained his composure.
DF Gerard Pique, 6 -- Suffered a lot in the first half, particularly against Ronaldo, although grew in stature after the break.
DF Jordi Alba, 5 -- Was quiet going forward for most of the game but proved he is always worth having on the pitch for his cut-back pass to Messi before the game-winning goal.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- Had done little in the game before his thumping strike, which looked to have made amends for his performance. That said, he will be blamed for his lethargic attempt to get tight on Marcelo for the equaliser.
MF Sergio Busquets, 6 -- A steady performer in defence and starting attacks but fell asleep in the area to allow James to grab the equaliser right in front of him, which almost cost Barca the win.
MF Andres Iniesta, 8 -- Was given far more freedom by Real's midfield than Juventus had allowed him and he was able to direct Barca's play with his faultless passing as a result. A great display, especially considering how the Juventus games could have jolted his confidence.
FW Lionel Messi, 9 -- Answered any doubts from the Juve games in emphatic fashion despite being mercilessly targeted by Madrid for the entirety of the game. He was unmoved by Marcelo's brutal elbow, which had him chewing on a tissue for much of the first half, and responded with the most stunning equaliser, ending a three-year drought in the Clasico. And just when Barca's title bid looked doomed once and for all, he reignited the flame with his 500th goal for the club. Trust him to choose the biggest moment on the biggest stage to do so.
FW Luis Suarez, 4 -- Had another desperately disappointing display, failing to impose himself on the game or link up with his strike partners, and wasted two great chances to score.
FW Paco Alcacer, 5 -- Combined reasonably well with Messi but often got shrugged off the ball and spurned a huge chance when he only had Keylor Navas to beat.
MF Andre Gomes, NR -- Never looked too confident when on the ball and neither did his teammates when he had it, although he did play his part in the winner.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.