Barcelona's thrilling defeat of Real Madrid leaves La Liga race tight

Sunday March 23rd, 2014

Lionel Messi had plenty to celebrate after scoring Barcelona's clinching fourth goal vs. Real Madrid.
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Seven goals, three penalties, a Lionel Messi hat-trick, a red card for Sergio Ramos and three points for Barcelona. This was a classic clasico, full of attacking verve, controversy and incident, and it leaves the Spanish title race closer than ever after a 4-3 Barcelona win over Real Madrid.

Atletico and Real Madrid head the table on 70 points, with Barcelona just one further back after Sunday's game. By completing the double over the their greatest rivals, Barcelona's Gerardo Martino has gleaned at least something in what is likely to be his only season as manager.

And yet, exciting as it was, full of twists and turns including four lead changes, the defending was an asterisk on an otherwise memorable game. The harum-scarum nature of the game, the excellence of some of the attacking play, the sense of the stakes involved, made it thoroughly gripping, but the fact is that much of the defending was suspect.

Part of Martino's brief when he took over last summer was to instil in Barcelona the sort of doughtiness that was characteristic of his Paraguay side. The comparison was always slightly artificial, given the difference in outlook of the two teams but, still, he might have expected to have had rather more of an influence than he has. Superb as Angel Di Maria was in the first half, surging forward from the left side of midfield - as he will for Argentina in the World Cup in the summer - he was assisted by some astonishingly acquiescent defending.

Dani Alves is hugely important to Barcelona going forward - as he showed in hitting the post with 16 minutes to go - but he remains, as he always has been, a deeply ordinary full-back. Given he had to deal with Cristiano Ronaldo, it's perhaps unfair to blame him too much for the space Di Maria kept finding, but from a Barcelona point of view, something went catastrophically wrong on its right. Neymar tracked Marcelo only occasionally and, after the first quarter of an hour or so, Xavi never seemed to get to grips with Di Maria.

The Argentinian had already laid on one glorious chance for Karim Benzema that the France forward skied. Two minutes later, the same combination produced a second, Benzema had an absurd amount of time to bring the ball down as Mascherano made an ill-judged attempt to intercept and Gerard Pique failed to mop up behind. Benzema's touch and finish were brilliant, but even half-decent would probably have made them impossible. And before half-time there was a fourth great chance for Benzema, again created by Di Maria, again facilitated by sloppy defending, Jordi Alba this time getting sucked towards the ball and only the presence of Pique on the line saved Barca.

Alves was at fault again nine minutes into the second half, clumsily conceding the penalty from which Cristiano Ronaldo put Real Madrid 3-2 up. It's true that the contact took place just outside the box, but it's also true that a better defensive fullback wouldn't that thrust out a leg to trip Ronaldo up.

Not that Real Madrid's defending was much better. Andres Iniesta's opener was the result of some majestic Barcelona play - the move totaled 24 passes and lasted 58 seconds - but still, as the play rolled from right to left, Gareth Bale could be seen tamely pointing at the space behind him, space that was increased as Daniel Carvajal was drawn infield and into which Iniesta then ran to receive Messi's pass and drill in.

The first Barca equalizer was the result of further slackness, Messi exerting a familiar mesmeric influence was he skipped through three half-challenges to squeeze in his finish. The second was the result of a familiar lack of thought from Sergio Ramos: Messi's pass was superb, Neymar's collapse was theatrical, but the 19th red card of Ramos's career was the result of a needless swipe of his left arm across Neymar's back plus a probably accidental contact on the Brazilian's leg. Messi was typically decisive from the spot, as he was with six minutes remaining when he competed his treble after Xabi Alosno was ruled to have tripped Iniesta.

Thrilling, yes. Brilliant to watch, yes. Entertaining, absolutely. But this was football that was so focused on only one facet of the game as to be almost anarchic; tactical indiscipline reigned. Perhaps it's natural that when two teams - or three this season as Atletico has joined the title race - are so much better than the rest and have forwards of extraordinary quality not merely in world but historical terms, that the focus shifts to relentless attacking. The corollary, though, is the defending suffers and it's hard to believe either side could go on to win the Champions League this season without a major improvement in that regard.

Either might yet go on to win La Liga, though, or they might falter and allow Atletico to triumph, and perhaps in the immediate aftermath of a tumultuous game, that's the emphasis should be on more local concerns: above all, this was tremendous fun.

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