The latest edition of El Clasico had no problem meeting the hype, as Lionel Messi's goal at the death gave Barcelona a 3-2 win over Real Madrid at an electric Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday, with the visitors blowing open La Liga's title race for the season run-in in the process.
Casemiro opened the scoring as the beneficiary of Sergio Ramos's shot that came off the post in the 28th minute, but he was answered five minutes later by a sensational effort from Messi. The Argentine superstar took a pass from Ivan Rakitic and slalomed through a pair of defenders with a single touch before finishing.
The goalkeepers were the story from there for a while, with both Marc-Ander ter Stegen and Keylor Navas making a string of sensational saves to keep their respective opponents off the board.
It was going take something terrific to beat Navas the way he was playing, and it came from Rakitic, whose left-footed laser from long range gave Barcelona the lead it craved in the 73rd minute. It got better for Barcelona four minutes later, when Sergio Ramos was sent off for a two-footed lunge on Messi, taking Real Madrid's late-scoring hero out of the equation and giving Barcelona a man advantage for the final 13 minutes.
A different hero came to the rescue for Real Madrid, though, with James Rodriguez coming off the bench in the 82nd minute and scoring the equalizer three minutes later.
The greatest hero of them all waited until the final kick of the game, though. Messi snatched victory from the jaws of a draw with a clinical finish off Jordi Alba's cross in the 92nd minute, silencing the home fans and presenting title-race intrigue for the next month.
Here are three thoughts on an epic match:
Messi at the center of it all for Barcelona
On a day when Neymar was out via suspension (and sorely missed, as evidenced by Paco Alcacer's no-show in his place) and Barcelona's midfield couldn't get a stranglehold on the game, it was Messi who took matters into his absolutely blessed feet to give Barcelona the win.
He was a key figure throughout the game, first bloodied by a Marcelo elbow before scoring his sensational, slaloming equalizer. It wasn't all roses for Messi, who missed a chance to give Barcelona the lead right before halftime with a misjudged volley at the far post.
Messi was a thorn for Real Madrid throughout, though, forcing Casemiro and Sergio Ramos into card-worthy fouls (more on that later) while completing one lengthy dribble after another and ultimately coming up with the match-winner in the most clutch moment possible. For an all-time great who has dealt with plenty of team setbacks for club and country over the last few years this had to feel extra special–hitting a new club milestone (his 500th career Barcelona goal) to carry his club while his individual rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, is left defeated.
Barcelona wasn't a ruthless, clinical side on Sunday, until the final sequence. Its defense, while up a man and needing the result, was inexcusable, allowing James to equalize and it had no answer for Marcelo throughout the match, with the Brazilian fullback arguably the story until Messi's winner. Barcelona proved to be a club that showed endless fight, though. With its character being called into question in some corners while playing for a lame duck manager after a (by its lofty standard) early exit from the Champions League, there's no denying the will the Blaugrana displayed in enemy territory.
As for Messi, he ended the day showing off the back of his jersey to the fans at the Bernabeu. His is a name they will surely never forget.
Title race back on!
Barcelona ends the day atop La Liga, tied on points with Real Madrid but ahead via head-to-head tiebreaker (the two played to a draw in their earlier meeting this season). Barcelona still needs some assistance, as Real Madrid has a game in hand, but its margin for error is now gone, and it might not have one of its key players for some time, too.
Sergio Ramos's straight red card was foolish (Do. Not. Enter. Into. A. Two. Footed. Flying. Lunge), and a multi-game ban could follow. Real Madrid's strength is not in its depth across the back line, and Ramos has been heroic all season long for the club on both ends of the field. Making matters worse, Gareth Bale got the start, fresh off a calf injury, but he lasted just 39 minutes before going off after reaggravating the ailment, and it's unclear how much more time he'll be forced to miss.
The door is wide open now for Barcelona to steal the title from Real.
Top 10 club rivalries in world soccer
10. Soweto Derby: Orlando Pirates vs. Kaizer Chiefs
The Soweto Derby is a way of life in Johannesburg, with crowds that exceed typical league crowds by several degrees of magnitude.
9. Cascadia Cup: Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers
Don't let anyone tell you Sounders-Timbers isn't one of the great global club rivalries. These two cities live and breathe soccer, have had their clubs' battle span multiple leagues, and the antipathy is real.
8. Fla-Flu: Flamengo vs. Fluminense
The Fla-Flu game in Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's great historical rivalry. No fewer than 194,000 fans attended this game at the Maracanã in 1963.
7. North London Derby: Arsenal vs. Tottenham
The North London Derby has gotten even more intense as Spurs has improved over the years, though Arsenal (for now) still carries its 21-year streak of finishing ahead of Tottenham in the table.
6. North-West Derby: Manchester United vs. Liverpool
The two most successful clubs in England historically (20 championships for Manchester United; 18 for Liverpool) also have one of the most bitter rivalries.
5. Clasico Nacional: Chivas de Guadalajara vs. Club America
Mexico's two most popular teams have a rivalry that pits Guadalajara against Mexico City and a team of players with only Mexican heritage (Chivas) against a team known for buying non-Mexican stars (América).
4. Derby della Capitale: Roma vs. Lazio
The Derby della Capitale is the most intense city rivalry in Italy, a fight for bragging rights in the Eternal City.
3. Superclasico: Boca Juniors vs. River Plate
The two Argentine giants of Buenos Aires may have the world's most passionate fanbases. I went to the SuperClásico in '95 and stood with the Boca hardcores. When Boca scored, a sea of humanity carried me three rows below.
2. Old Firm: Celtic vs. Rangers
The divide between Catholics (Celtic) and Protestants (Rangers) through sports in Glasgow. I once wore all-black to this game in '99 and got yelled at for not picking a side.
1. El Clasico: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid
The two best teams in Spain also have a long history as sporting proxies of Castilian Spain and Catalonia. Given the enmity in El Clásico, it's a wonder that the Spanish national team hasn't been more dysfunctional.
What was Real Madrid thinking?
Messi's winner came on a lethal counter (seriously, not one wasted movement or pass; and how about the screening-swinging door movement off the ball by Luis Suarez and Sergi Roberto to give Messi a shooting lane?), with 10-man Madrid pressuring, trying to win a game it really could have afforded to draw. With a game in hand, a friendly league schedule and a three-point lead all but assured, Zinedine Zidane's approach after James's equalizer (and give the manager credit for that substitution in that moment and Real's approach while down a goal and a man) has to be called into question.
Only one team absolutely needed a win Sunday, and while another goal from Real Madrid would have absolutely put Barcelona to the sword, it was way too risky of a tactic to open itself up to a potential Barcelona break, such as the 5-v-3 that was so expertly executed. Zidane acknowledged as much in his postgame remarks.
You can say that again. The price might be watching your bitter rival raise La Liga's trophy again, while Real Madrid's domestic drought extends.