There have been 43 clásicos in the 21st century, a number of them classics. But this might have been the most fun of all
As one former Barcelona player puts it: "It is the game of the century, even if there are eight of them a year." It is a comment not just on the excellence and the expectation that comes with Real Madrid v Barcelona but also on their eclipse of all else, on the dominance and potential dilution of a rivalry in which they have played each other 19 times in the last four seasons and will meet at least once more this and in which they alone account for over 60% of Spanish football fans and millions more round the world; on the pressure, the power and the politics; on the way every meeting appears to end eras and close cycles, epochs defined in a day; and on the impossibility of ever living up to the hype.
Not because the matches are no good – mostly they are – but because everyone's watching. "Go to the moon: Madrid, Barcelona," laughs Hristo Stoichkov. Because Madrid and Barcelona have made more money than anyone else every year for four years; because this summer they signed the world's two most expensive players; because every one of the last 19 winners of the Fifa world player of the year award has played for them at some point and because they alone have won La Liga in the last decade, plus three European Cups each since 1998, more than anyone else; and because they have Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And how do you ever live up to that?
The game of the century? This time it might just have been. The clásico of the century, at least. When the final whistle went just before 11 o'clock on Sunday night, they embraced, exhausted but exhilarated. And that was just the fans. High in the north stand, there were 300 Barcelona supporters and they leapt up and down. Below, Barcelona's players celebrated a 4-3 victory. Madrid's supporters stared in disbelief, spent. But they'd really lived it too. Even Carlo Ancelotti called it a good game, despite losing. Brazilians Neymar and Marcelo were the last players to leave, walking off the pitch talking to each other from behind their hands. "Well, that was pretty tasty, eh?"
There have been 43 clásicos in the 21st century. Some stood out for their symbolism as much as their skill: from the pig's head to the pasillo. There have been three 2-2s and two 3-2s in the last three seasons alone and you have to go back 33 games for the last 0-0. There was the 3-3 draw when a 19-year-old Messi scored a ludicrously good hat-trick, or Ronaldinho getting a standing ovation from the Santiago Bernabéu. There was the 6-2 of course and, for technical perfection, there may never have been a performance like the 5-0. They'd waited 21 years for a cup final meeting which finally arrived in 2011 and was won by a Ronaldo header of brutal beauty, while for importance nothing matches Champions League semi-finals in 2002 and 2011. Then there was last season's homage to Catalonia that became a homage to football.
But this might have been more fun than all of them. It was important too. Madrid's opportunity was Barcelona's obligation. Tata Martino described it as a last chance. Defeat would put his side seven points behind their rivals, the title gone. Instead, they are alive; this is a game that has done a service to Spanish football – a deeper one even than it first appeared. At the end, everybody was trying to catch their breath. First Barcelona led, then Real Madrid did, twice, and finally Barcelona did again. From 0-1 to 2-1, from 2-2 to 3-2 and from 3-3 to 3-4: seven goals, three penalties one red card and one wide open title race. Hay Liga, as they say. There is a league. There certainly is.
So much happened that it was hard to know where to start. So, with crushing inevitability, they started with the referee. There were three penalties, two of which were doubtful: Ronaldo was outside the area when he had been fouled by Dani Alves, while it was not clear whether Sergio Ramos had caught Neymar for the penalty that made it 3-3 and earned Ramos a red card.
At the time, Ramos hardly protested. Afterwards, he did, climbing atop a metal box to say: "If they wanted to tighten up the title, they've got what they wanted." A few metres away, Ronaldo was calling conspiracy, decrying Madrid's supposed lack of power. He described the referee Undiano Mallenco as "white". Not white as in Madrid but white as in pallid, lacking in personality. "If you play for Madrid you don't get the same treatment," he said. "It obviously annoys people for Madrid to win. They're envious. It doesn't interest anyone for us to win and the referees know that."
"We live in a country where after a spectacle like this people always try to explain it through the referees," Gerard Piqué said. Perhaps he would say that but he had a point. Ronaldo and Gareth Bale appeared fleetingly but left moments; Neymar did little to dispel the doubts, or explain why he started over Pedro or Alexis Sánchez, but he was at the heart of two of Barcelona's four goals. The defending might have been dreadful at times but that probably made it even better as a spectacle and an occasion. And at the other end, it was often sublime and at speed too. All played against a wall of noise and racing heartbeats.
AS's front page called it "a footballing storm". Marca called it "beautiful, full of emotion". Few, though, expressed it like El Mundo Deportivo, who were chucking the exclamation marks around with abandon. "DELIRIUM!" ran the headline on the front page. "MONUMENTAL" it said on the next page. "Everything is possible!" came next. Then "Immense!". The page after that didn't say anything about the game: it was a full-page advert for Barcelona-branded Japanese knives, in which Tello cuts mushrooms, Pedro slices tomatoes and Víctor Valdés is busy taking a meat cleaver to a courgette in a picture that makes you wince in anticipation and screams "opening scene of Casualty" at you. "The best team on the pitch, the best team in the kitchen," runs the slogan.
They were perhaps half right. All season there have been debates and doubts but this was Barcelona being Barcelona, racking up 708 passes to Madrid's 336, and creating 17 shots; they could claim to have deserved this victory. Yet there was not much in it and Madrid claim to have deserved it too. At 2-1 and again at 3-2, Madrid had looked more likely to win; equally, at 1-0 Barcelona could have made it 2-0 or 3-0 and suddenly found themselves 2-1 down. "We were in control at 3-2," Ancelotti said, which might have been an exaggeration but Barcelona never had it easy and if they claimed possession it did not always bring them the security they sought. Ancelotti was certainly right when he insisted that his team had played well.
This was a brilliant game, too much fun, too much going on, too significant for the league, to focus on the referee; a game in which records fell and the football flowed. Only once before had there been more goals in a clásico this century. The first goal was Messi's 19th in the clásico, more than anyone else ever, and two more followed. For the first time in 101 games, Ronaldo had scored but Madrid had lost. And Alves beat Madrid for the 13th time – a new historic record in La Liga. Then there was Karim Benzema's gorgeous thigh control and volley for the second Madrid goal; Andrés Iniesta doing what Iniesta pretty much never does and smashing in a rocket, hard and straight with his left foot, before going back to doing what he always does and gliding about; that pass from Cesc Fábregas; and those passes from Xavi.
Above all, there were the men who spent the final minutes before the game, talking to each other through the huge metal fence that separates the team in the tunnel like sweethearts in jail: Ángel Di María and Messi. Both Argentinians were astonishing. Di María made four clear chances for Benzema, despite appearing to faint after the first goal, tearing Barcelona to bits on the left. As for Messi, on his first goal, he drove the move, a sudden burst of intent and acceleration changing everything, before playing in Neymar, who lost the ball. As Messi reacted to reach it, it was as if he was saying: "Oh, get out the way, then. I'll do it." And so he did. It turned out to be just the start. It ended with a hat-trick, Messi's second penalty buried high in the top corner.
"There's no point talking about Messi. It's eulogy after eulogy and record after record. I just hope he gives me the match ball! I think he broke another record today, didn't he?" Martino said. "We knew that either the league restarted or it was completely over. Now we're totally back in it."
Just one point separates them from the top now. Outside, Barcelona's players were departing the stadium and boarding the bus, embracing friends on the way through, all high fives and big smiles.
They were not alone. In an AVE train carriage somewhere in the dark between Seville and Madrid, they were celebrating too. Spain's two biggest teams, the world's biggest clubs, rekindled the greatest rivalry in sport and this time it did live up to the hype. The game of the century. Madrid and Barcelona met in a game that was decisive for the destiny of the title, a clash that would define the rest of the season, and at the end of it the league had a new leader. But it was neither of them. Atlético Madrid are top.
• Atlético Madrid travelled back from Seville as league leaders having defeated Real Betis 2-0. It turned out to be a little harder than they expected, especially with Betis coming off an exhausting and emotional penalty shoot-out defeat to rivals Sevilla in the Europa League on Thursday night, but a red card for Braian changed things. The card was, in the words of Atlético captain Gabi, "both totally justified and also decisive". Betis manager Gabi Calderón only half agreed. He kept up his recent discourse by moaning: "I feel that referees don't respect us." Gabi then got the first with a belter and Costa added the second, his 23rd of the season.
• Elche lost 1-0 at Granada but there was good news: Charlie I'Anson started and played very well.
• New manager, same old results. Still no wins for Getafe. That's 14 weeks without a win now. They were much improved against Athletic but were beaten by a brilliant goal, curled in by Markel Susaeta. That was probably the weekend's best but Alberto Bueno's volley for Rayo in the 1-1 draw at Valladolid was pretty good too: Rayo are now unbeaten in four.
• And in the weekend's most predictable result, Espanyol and Levante drew 0-0.
Results: Celta 0-2 Málaga, Granada 1-0 Elche, Espanyol 0-0 Levante, Valladolid 1-1 Rayo, Athletic 1-0 Getafe, Osasuna 1-2 Sevilla, Betis 0-2 Atlético, Valencia 2-1 Villarreal, Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona. Monday: Almería-Real Sociedad.