With six minutes to go Lionel Messi struck a penalty high into the top corner of the Real Madrid net to complete a hat-trick and the scoring in an astonishing match that left the title race wide open once again. Just a solitary point now separates these two great rivals. Yet while the biggest game in Spain concluded with a new league leader, it was neither of them. Atlético Madrid are top.
All three contenders stand within a point of each other in a fascinating run-in that concludes with Barcelona-Atlético at the Camp Nou. Madrid's "other team" are top on head-to-head over Real, while Barcelona are a point behind the capital's clubs. The defending may not have been the most accomplished, and attention turned with crushing inevitability to the referee, Cristiano Ronaldo insisting that "they" do not want Madrid to win the league, but some of the attacking was sublime and this was a fascinating, intense and wide open clásico in which there were seven goals, three penalties, one red card and barely a second to catch the breath.
Of the penalties two were questionable: Ronaldo appeared to be fouled outside the area while it is not clear that Sergio Ramos tripped Neymar for the spot-kick that made it 3-3 and earned him a red card. Gareth Bale also thought he should have had a penalty when, at 3-2, he appeared to be fouled by Gerard Piqué. Carlo Ancelotti did not want to talk about the referee but he did say: "We were winning 3-2 and in control at the time." The Italian instead expressed satisfaction at the performance even though Madrid lost for the first time in 32 matches.
There was much to focus on. Many men graced a match which swung from 0-1 to 2-1, to 2-2 to 3-2 to 3-3 and finally 3-4. Karim Benzema scored twice, the second wonderfully taken, and Andrés Iniesta glided, but two Argentinians left the most lasting impression: Ángel Di María and Messi, whose hat-trick was supplemented with a wonderful range of passing. At times it was hard to keep up and the noise inside the Santiago Bernabéu was extraordinary.
The atmosphere had built early, the streets round the stadium packed. Supporters felt like Madrid's time had come. They could take a firm grip on the title race. If this was an opportunity for Madrid, for Barcelona it was an obligation. Victory would put Madrid seven points clear of them with nine games remaining. "We knew that either the league started up again or it was completely over," Gerardo Martino admitted. After seven minutes Barcelona's league started up again, then it was over and with seven minutes to go it restarted a second time.
Iniesta struck the opener into the roof of the net after Messi slotted a nicely weighted diagonal pass into the area behind the right-back Daniel Carvajal. It was his first ever goal at the Bernabéu and only his second in a clásico.
Barcelona should have added to their lead. Messi scuffed his shot when in behind Ramos and then played in Neymar whose hesitation allowed Pepe to block. At the other end Di María played in Benzema only for the France striker to curl over from nine yards before the connection worked. Di María's high, swinging cross was met by Benzema's head and powered into the net off Víctor Valdés's hand, Barcelona's lack of height exposed again.
As Madrid's players returned to the halfway line, Di María went to ground as if he had feinted but he was soon up and providing another. This time his cross was from the byline, clipped in lower and more softly; Benzema controlled on his right thigh and volleyed in with the same foot. This was already the fastest double in 36 years and, almost immediately, it took Piqué to prevent it from being a hat-trick, clearing off the line after the same pair again combined.
Some wonderful footwork then set Messi free and he found Neymar on the penalty spot before time. The Brazilian was dispossessed but the ball ran free and Messi reacted with remarkable speed, as if to say: "If you won't do it, I will." Three men dived in but his shot was in the net. The game had swung again. Last weekend Messi became the top scorer in Barcelona's history; now he became the top scorer in the history of the clásicos, overtaking Alfredo Di Stéfano's 18.
This was not over, far from it. A second-half run from Bale saw him play Benzema in, but the Frenchman's shot was pushed away by Valdés. Then Ronaldo was caught by Dani Alves. It appeared to be on the edge of the area but Undiano Mallenco gave the penalty from which Ronaldo put Madrid back in front. In truth it had not been the Portuguese's best display of late but he appeared to have won it. Until Messi appeared again.
He played a wonderful ball behind Ramos for Neymar to run on to. One on one with Diego López, the Brazilian went down. Ramos protested his innocence but the referee gave the penalty and pulled out a red card for the man who had already been sent off more times than anyone else in Madrid's history.
Messi, like Ronaldo, scored. And with six minutes to go he had another opportunity, when Iniesta was taken down. This time there was no doubt about the penalty. There was no doubt about Messi either.