Real Madrid climbed to the top of La Liga on Saturday after Karim Benzema helped them to a thrilling 2-1 win over Barcelona in a wild Clasico at Valdebebas. Benzema’s superb skill and a deflected free-kick from Toni Kroos put Madrid in the driver’s seat and as Oscar Mingueza pulled one away for Barca, they fell to win in what could be Lionel Messi’s last appearance in this match. The victory means Real Madrid go to the point level with Atletico, with the top three now separated by a single point.
Atletico, without injured Luis Suarez, will face Real Betis on Sunday.
But Real Madrid now have the best head-to-head against their two rivals, while Barcelona and Atletico have yet to face each other at Camp Nou in the showdown.
As Atletico stumble and Barca and Real Madrid hit their stride, this game looked set to define, if not the title, which would then become favorites to be crowned champions in May.
The result was a thrilling competition in a rain-soaked Alfredo di Stefano stadium – arguably one of the most exciting Clasicos in years – which saw both teams squander many opportunities, several efforts returned to the woodwork and Casemiro sent off in overtime.
With the last play of the game, Barcelona substitute Ilaix Moriba shook Real Madrid’s crossbar.
“We’re still there,” Barca coach Ronald Koeman said.
“We lost a game to a team that is also fighting for the league, but we have eight games left and we will fight to the end.”
Casemiro’s red card had also given Messi a free kick and the possibility of a dramatic equalizer, but instead the Argentine has gone seven games now scoreless against Real Madrid, with many wondering if his 45th Clasico will be his last.
Messi could still turn the tide in the remaining eight games, but there’s no doubt that Madrid are in the groove after beating Liverpool 3-1 on Tuesday with another crucial victory.
They can finish the Champions League job at Anfield next week although Zinedine Zidane has later admitted his players are “physically at their limit”.
“It was a tough game, the first half was ours, but we suffered in the second,” Zidane said. “We deserved the win because we had a lot of chances to score the third.”
A breathless first half started with chances for both teams as Marc-André ter Stegen’s sloppy clearance almost gave Benzema a scramble to goal before Messi slipped into Jordi Alba, but the cross was intercepted by Thibaut Courtois.
Real Madrid’s opener came after a superb Barcelona counterattack, with Messi falling too easily to the edge of the box, with Madrid rushing at the break.
Fede Valverde propelled the midfielder and gave Lucas Vazquez a big blow, whose cross was expertly shot inside the near post by Benzema.
The goal rocked Barça, who could not contain the speed of Madrid and in particular Vinicius Junior at the break.
Vinicius was shot down by Ronald Araujo on the edge of the area and Kroos’ free kick was pulled over Sergino Dest’s back and inside, avoiding Alba’s efforts to head for the line.
Both Valverde and Messi hit the post before half-time, Valverde after another scintillating Madrid counterattack and Messi from a corner kick, Courtois beaten.
Koeman brought Antoine Griezmann for Dest, but as the rain fell, Madrid rushed. Kroos and Benzema both could have scored a third and they were punished for not capitalizing.
Griezmann jumped over Alba’s cross and as the ball slid, Mingueza did well to make it shine in the net.
Araujo deflected Vinicius’ cross on his own post and Alba was denied by Courtois. Once again Madrid ripped off, once again they missed the chance, Vinicius running on Luka Modric’s pass but choosing not to shoot, allowing Araujo to clear.
With 20 minutes left, Zidane took off Benzema, Vinicius and Kroos.
Referee Gil Manzano had to replace his equipment because of the rain. Messi changed his shirt to a dry one.
Barcelona wanted a late penalty when Ferland Mendy cut Martin Braithwaite with his arm, but the call was optimistic.
Casemiro was sent off in the 90th minute for a late challenge on Mingueza, who gave Messi a near-box free kick but Courtois saved.
With Ter Stegen and almost the last kick of the match, Ilaix shook the crossbar. Madrid survived.
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