Lionel Messi blew the La Liga title race wide open when the unstoppable Argentina forward netted a hat-trick in a 4-3 comeback win for the champions at 10-man Real Madrid in an action-paced ‘Clasico’ on Sunday.
Chasing a fifth title in six years, defeat for Barca at Real’s Bernabeu stadium would have all-but killed off their challenge and they came out swinging and took a seventh-minute lead when playmaker Andres Iniesta burst clear on the left and lashed the ball into the roof of the net.
It was fitting start to a game featuring some of the world’s most expensive and best-paid talent and watched by millions around the world that also set the stage for one of the most entertaining encounters between the game’s two richest clubs of recent times.
Real, looking to restore their three-point lead at the top and undefeated in 31 matches in all competitions, were reeling but hit back with a Karim Benzema double before Messi’s first, a close-range snap shot through a crowd of players to make it 2-2 at the break.
Cristiano Ronaldo put Real ahead from the penalty spot 10 minutes into the second half after he was tripped by Dani Alves and the match turned when home captain Sergio Ramos was sent off for felling Neymar when he was through on goal in the 63rd.
Messi clipped home the resulting penalty to level at 3-3 and after some relentless Barca pressure struck the winner from the spot six minutes from time after Iniesta was knocked to the ground in the area.
The Real players were furious about both penalty decisions but Barca played a courageous game as they had promised and dominated possession, particularly after Ramos was dismissed, and thoroughly deserved the victory.
With nine games left, Real have 70 points, level with city neighbours Atletico Madrid, who won 2-0 at bottom side Real Betis in the earlier kickoff, and one ahead of third-placed Barca.
“It was an emotional match,” Barca fullback Jordi Alba said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
“We started strongly and then fell behind but we reacted well and managed to get an important win,” added the Spain international.
“The games that remain are like finals for Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid. This victory will give us a big morale boost.”
Ronaldo and Ramos were particularly harsh in their criticism of referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco, suggesting he should not be allowed to officiate another ‘Clasico’, but Real coach Carlo Ancelotti refused to get drawn into the debate.
He urged his players to put Sunday’s reverse behind them and regroup for a potentially tricky encounter on Wednesday at fifth-placed Sevilla, who won 2-1 at Osasuna on Sunday.
“We made some small mistakes and that’s why we did not win,” Ancelotti, in his first season in charge after succeeding Jose Mourinho, told a news conference.
“We pressured them continued…