Real scored after only 21 seconds, but Barcelona came back at them to close the gap at the top
Since losing 1-0 at Levante and following that up with a goalless draw at Racing Santander in late September, Real Madrid have won 15 games on the spin. They've done this by an aggregate score of 57-9. Three goals against Ajax, Villarreal, Valencia, Sporting Gijon and Ajax again. Four goals against Espanyol, Real Betis, Lyon, Malaga and Atletico Madrid. Six goals against Rayo Vallecano and Dynamo Zagreb. Seven goals against Osasuna. Gotta love José.
Over the same period, Barcelona have played 17 games, winning "only" 14, drawing two, and losing one. Their aggregate score is 49-4. Four goals conceded in 17 games! And, in fairness, they've not had a chance to rattle a few past those clowns from Zagreb.
The conclusion? I have no idea. But let's just say while Madrid are the form team going into this match - they're three points clear of Barca at the top of the Primera División with a game in hand, while their Catalan rivals have won only three of their last ten away league games - the guard hasn't changed quite yet. Though this match - as Sid Lowe explains here in a comprehensive and, needless to say, excellent summary - could indeed be a pivotal game. Should Real win, the league could be as good as over. In December.
The prediction (based on averages since the start of Real's winning streak on September 24 2011): On current form, if we factor out goals against, the final score will be Real Madrid 3.8 - 2.882352941176471 Barcelona. Barca's stingier defence has to count for at least .882352941176471 of a goal, though, surely? So, this promises to be a close tussle, if my Bad Maths (Totally Ignoring Bits I Don't Know How To Work Out Properly) is anything to go by.
Kick off: 9pm BST.
Real Madrid: Casillas, Coentrão, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo, Alonso, Lass, Di María, Özil, Ronaldo, Benzema.
Subs: Adán, Albiol, Arbeloa, Khedira, Kaká, Callejón, Higuaín.
Barcelona: Valdés, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Abidal, Sergio, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi, Alexis.
Subs: Pinto, Mascherano, Maxwell, Keita, Thiago, Pedro, Villa.
Árbitro, seeing we're bandying around Spanish terms such as El Clásico with fraudulent familiarity: Fernández Borbalán.
And we're off! Barca kick off. And...
21 seconds: SENSATIONAL GOAL!!! Real Madrid 1-0 Barcelona. Barca shuttle the ball back to Valdes. He slices a hellish clearance out to Di Maria, loitering down the inside-right channel, just outside the area. He shoots low. The ball rebounds off Busquets. Ozil, in the centre, shoots. The ball balloons off Busquets again - and straight to Benzema, six yards out, who steers the ball into the net over the embarrassed keeper. Wow.
2 min: Four goals in the last 17 games, Barcelona had let in. Real have taken a third of a minute to add a fifth. On the touchline, Jose Mourinho pretends that he doesn't give a flying one.
4 min: Barca are all over the shop here. The ball ends up at the feet of Valdes again, and he's soon surrounded by a swarm of white annoyances. This time he hacks clear without drama.
6 min: It's raining, and the surface is slippy. This may explain the Komic Keystone Kops Kutz on display so far. Ramos slips, just outside the area. Messi scoots off with the ball, and aquaplanes into the area down the inside-right channel, before aiming for the bottom left. Casillas fingertips the ball past the post. World class football all round (Ramos apart). The corner is an aimless waste of time, so much so that we could be watching the Premier League.
8 min: Coentrao upends Alexis down the left. The Barca player waves an imaginary yellow at the ref, but his wish isn't granted. I'm supposed to say that we don't like to see things like that, but I don't actually care. Why not? The free kick, in a dangerous position, comes to naught. Real stream upfield on the counter, but Di Maria wastes a decent three-on-three situation by greedily shooting from distance, Valdes swallowing the shot whole.
11 min: Di Maria skidaddles down the right. He's got three men close to him, but still manages to whip a cross to the far post, where Benzema rises above Puyol to head towards the bottom left. Valdes is all over the effort, but that was a chance hewn out of bugger all from Real Madrid, who look very determined indeed. "Drinking game for anyone interested," hiccups Shooby Taylor. "Every time Sergio Busquets goes down holding his face after minimal/no contact, you take a drink. Be warned: you'll be smashed at half time." Where's my drink? All I've got is a cup of coffee. I'll be doing laps of the office.
13 min: Xabi Alonso, who scored two goals from inside in his own half during his time at Liverpool, has a long-distance shot from just inside the Barca half. He latches onto another poor clearance by the hapless Valdes, and hits a first-time effort straight back down the pitch. The effort drifts wide right - in fact it doesn't even reach the dead-ball line - but for a split second the entire stadium took a sharp intake of breath.
15 min: Di Maria has jiggered his groin while chasing down Pique, slipping on the turf and accidentally doing the splits. For a while it looks like the end of his evening, but he walks off briskly enough after getting treatment, so I'll say he's likely to be back on soon enough.
18 min: It is pelting down in Madrid. Alexis nearly breaks clear down the right, but he's taken a long ball down with his arm, and the referee puts a stop to his gallop.
19 min: Ronaldo picks the ball up down the left, cuts inside, and unleashes a dipping, swerving screamer from 35 yards or so. Valdes should deal with it easily, and sort of does, punching the ball back out, but it's not the most confident biff you'll ever witness. He doesn't look in total control of his limbs tonight, does the Barca keeper.
22 min: Iniesta shimmies and shakes down the inside-left channel and into the area. He nearly breaks clear for a shooting chance, but the ball's bundled out of the box at the last. Fabregas picks the ball up and is immediately upended by Diarra. That'll be a free kick, just outside the left-hand corner of the box.
23 min: Xavi looks for the top-right corner with the free kick. It's not particularly well directed, straight down Casillas' throat. But the Real keeper makes a seven-course meal of saving it, the ball skidding off his clenched fists, up and out for a corner. The set piece is wasted.
25 min: Benzema, to the left of the area, is being shepherded away from goal, but suddenly sends a cracking reverse pass back inside to Ronaldo, who with only Valdes to beat, shanks a hellish effort miles wide right. That should have been a second goal, especially as Di Maria was also unmarked, and in an even better position, just to his right. Ronaldo does a lot of shouting, using the Portuguese words for EFF and CEE.
27 min: Two bookings in a minute. First Xabi Alonso for a needless rake across Messi's shins, then Alexis for a pointless hack on Di Maria. It's been played in a good spirit so far, but there we are with the first signs of it kicking off. Again, I suppose I'm duty bound to say we don't like to see this sort of thing, but we sort of do, don't we.
29 min: Dani Alves cries murder after Marcelo clatters into him. The referee sighs wearily. There's an edge now.
30 min: GOAL!!! Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona. This was so simple, and so brilliant. Messi, from the centre circle, drives down the middle, drawing three white shirts. He eventually slides a pass down the inside-right channel to spring Alexis free. From the edge of the box, just to the right of goal, Alexis whips a low shot straight into the bottom-left corner. Casillas had no chance. That came from nothing. Barca, who have been poor so far, are right back in this! Ronaldo will rue that useless shot of a few mintues ago.
33 min: All of a sudden, Barcelona's pretty triangles are sticking to feet. Their confidence is back, after being knocked to buggery in the opening 21 seconds. "As a result of GB being cut off from all things eurozone by the mighty bluster of our PM, I fear this is the last el classico the Guardian will be allowed to cover. Soon a euro-sceptic curtain will descend behind which the UK and and a trapped Tevez will sit in isolation." Ladies and gentlemen, that was the week that was, with Ian Copestake, the David Frost de nos jours.
35 min: Dani Alves leaves his foot in a 50-50 challenge with Xabi Alonso. He should be booked for his sauce, but isn't. Just for a nanosecond, tempers threaten to boil over. Still nearly an hour to go, so fans of big cartoon clouds with feet and fists sticking out of them needn't worry yet.
36 min: Pepe clips the back of Sanchez's heels. Sanchez executes a perfect triple salchow with pike. There's a discussion regarding disciplinary measures. Messi is booked for talking the big talk at the referee.
39 min: The equaliser has visibly shrunk Madrid. They were streaming forward with great regularity during the opening phase of this game, but aren't spending much time in the Barcelona half now. They look like breaking after Di Maria and Ozil exchange crisp passes in the centre circle, Di Maria skating down the right, but his attempted cross is so bad it nearly ends up back at the centre circle. "Is it just me, or is Alexis as obnoxious on the pitch as Tevez is off it?" wonders Rob Smith. "He stands out as being annoying on a pitch containing Ronaldo, Di Maria and Marcelo. Good goal mind."
42 min: Messi so nearly releases Iniesta with a sliderule pass down the middle. Pepe comes over to hoof clear, having read the danger wonderfully. Then Messi, Xavi and Alexis triangulate down the inside-right channel, only to be denied on the edge of the area by Pepe again. After a good minute of textbook defending, Pepe then takes a wild swing at the ball, nearly catching Alexis. He misses both ball and man completely, but that doesn't stop the Barca nark getting right up in Pepe's grille, claiming he was fouled. Alexis is a very entertaining man to watch when he's got the funk on.
44 min: Messi is late on Alonso. The referee reaches for his card, then realises who he'd be booking, and just gives Messi a ticking off instead. The little man can count himself very lucky not to be enjoying an early bath. It would have been the mother, father and extended family of soft sending offs, having earned his first yellow for chat, but rules are rules, and that looked like a second booking.
HALF TIME: Real Madrid 1-1 Barcelona. And that's that for the half. Madrid were the better team for the first half hour, Barcelona for the last 15 minutes. The second half promises to be a belter, but then it's Real Madrid versus Barcelona, of course it does.
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And we're off again! Real get the party started again. "The equaliser has visibly shrunk Madrid, eh?" parrots Mac Millings. "Things that visibly shrink me: cold water; Rob Smyth's byline pic, responsibility and (cruel irony!) pretty girls."
45 min 22 seconds: No goals in this half yet. Bah. What a load of rubbish.
47 min: Ronaldo skidaddles down the inside-left channel. He's stopped just outside the area by Pique, who leaves a leg dangling to ensure the Real man goes no further. He's into the book. "Alexis might be fun in a rage but he has nothing on Ben Ainslie," notes Ian Copestake, not without reason. "Perhaps Ben could invite Alexis, Bellamy and Barton out for a nice boat trip one day and have a camera on hand to record the hi-jinks."
49 min: The free kick's 25 yards out, just to the left of the goal. Ronaldo takes it, battering it straight at the wall. What abject uselessness. Luckily for Real, a second chance, as Dani Alves bundles Pepe over in a rugby-style breakdown. Another free kick to come, 25 yards out again, just to the left of centre. Can he deliver something decent this time?
50 min: No, not really. He curls a low effort on target, in the vague direction of the bottom-right corner, but it's straight at Valdes, who handles with confidence.
53 min: KEYSTONE KOPS II: Real Madrid 1-2 Barcelona. A sliding clearance by Ramos flies out to Xavi, nearly 30 yards out. He takes a first-time lash at the ball. His shot is flying to the left-hand side of the net. Casillas goes after it. He's got it covered, but the ball takes a massive deflection of poor Marcelo, balloons onto the right-hand post, and into the net just ahead of a desparing Casillas. The sort of goal that should be soundtracked by tubas, cymbals and swannee whistles. You'd hear the instruments, too, as the Bernabeu falls silent at the farce it's just witnessed.
56 min: A Messiesque sashay and sliderule pass down the inside-left channel from Ozil releases Benzema. He looks to curl one across the face of Valdes and into the top right, but his shot is deflected out for a corner. The corner's a waste of time, so I'll not be describing it. "The purchasing of Christmas presents implies the existence of MBM followers having loved ones for whom those presents can be bought," notes tearful melodramatist
Charles Dickens Ian Copestake.
58 min: A change for Madrid: Ozil off, Kaka on. "I've seen a picture of Mac Millings dressed as a 70s lothario," writes Phil Sawyer. "Really, I have. Pray for me. That didn't so much visibly shrink me as rob me for life of the ability to mate."
61 min: Diarra is booked for grabbing Iniesta from behind and hauling him to the floor. Real look very frustrated inded. "I can't believe Jose's taking Ozil off," huffs Emmanuel Jamin. "Benzema, Di Maria and Ozil have been superb, only to be undone by Ronaldo's mediocrity."
62 min: Messi draws three players down the inside-left channel, then releases Alexis, who gets a shot on target from the tightest of angles, nearly on the byline. Casillas kicks away. Barca are well on top here.
63 min: Pepe is booked for a late clip on Messi. He's immediately replaced by Khedira. Messi sends the free kick - 25 yards out, dead centre - just to the left of the goal. That was a real whistler.
65 min: WHAT A MISS BY RONALDO!!! Alonso whips a magnificent cross right onto Ronaldo's head from the left. Ronaldo is eight yards from goal, totally unmarked. All he has to do is pick his spot, but instead screws a terrible effort wide left.
66 min: GOAL!!! Real Madrid 1-3 Barcelona. Barca stroke it up the field: tippy tap, tiki tak. Alves is sent flying down the right. He whips a stupendous cross to the far post, where Fabregas, who has hared up the field after the play, stoops to crash a header past Casillas. That was magnificent. What a response by Barcelona to that early goal. This truly is the stuff of champions. But for the second time in the game, a miss by Ronaldo has been severely punished by Barcelona. He's had a shocker.
68 min: The final roll of the dice by Mourinho: Di Maria is replaced by Higuain. "You know, they've closed off Cibeles in the centre of Madrid (where celebrations usually take place for Spanish national team matches) just in case of Madrid victory," reports Jonathan Skinner. "As a Barça supporter living in Madrid, I'm hoping to go down there later."
70 min: Ramos is booked for a legbreaking slide on Messi. Had Messi not jumped into the air so quickly, he could easily be heading off somewhere in the big white taxi.
71 min: Real are trying to step up the tempo, but the passes aren't sticking. They look a beaten team already. Speaking of the prematurely defeated, here's Mac Millings: "'I've seen a picture of Mac Millings dressed as a 70s lothario' is precisely the same as saying 'I've seen a picture of Mac Millings.' Ladies."
73 min: Another cross from Alves from the right to the far post. Messi tries to replicate the Fabregas goal, but mistimes his jump. That was so close to number four. "Where does Jose go from here?" wonders Ian Little. "What motivation does he use? The referee has not been poor, they were gifted their only goal, they're playing at home having won the last 16 in all competitions. He is a master motivator but what happens when Barca don't get the message that this is his Spanish coming out party?" Well, he could claim that Messi should have been sent off at the end of the first half. But
Ronaldo has Madrid have been so poor in this second half, they'd have probably struggled anyway.
75 min: Benzema skates past Puyol down the left and into the area. He looks for the bottom-right corner, but his hard, low shot flies wide right of goal. Higuain is this close to toe-poking home, but he can't slide in quickly enough to meet the ball.
78 min: The Bernabeu is almost totally silent, bar a few Barca fans giving it laldie. "'Fabregas didn't just get his dagger out, he used his BIG HARPOON!' yells Ray Hudson, the world's weirdest commentator," relays Justin Kavanagh. "When will Gol TV take out their dagger, harpoon, guillotine, or any other other sharp instrument and just put the man out of his misery. And us out of ours."
79 min: Fabregas is replaced by Keita. "I am hopeful that this loss will motivate Xavi Alonso to return to Liverpool," wishes Ian Copestake. If Mourinho's interested in an Andy Carroll plus cash swap, the deal could be on.
81 min: Iniesta sells Coentrao an outrageous dummy down the left, then drifts inside and makes his way to the box. He's within his rights to have a shot, but unselfishly tries to free Alexis, who is just to his left. Unfortunately, after such a sublime and skilful run, his pass is uncharacteristically inept. A shame, because that would have been a picture-book goal.
84 min: Alexis goes off, Villa comes on. Kaka enters the Barca box down the left, but his low goal-bound shot from a tight-ish angle is deflected wide right by Valdes. Nothing comes from the corner, but if that had gone in, we'd have had a final few minutes to savour. "Aaah," sighs Thomas Lavin, "Jonathan Skinner (68 mins), that archetypal Catalan name!"
85 min: Pepe attempts to play his way out of defence. Messi wanders off with the ball, whistling. He slips it down the inside-left channel to Iniesta, who instigates an almighty scramble in the area as he tries to score from a tight angle. Casillas eventually snaffles the ball, but Madrid were inches away from conceding a fourth there.
87 min: Villa zips down the inside-left channel. He could shoot upon reaching the area, but elects to pass inside for Iniesta. The ball doesn't find his man. Madrid are all over the shop now.
88 min: Barca keep coming back at Real. It's like a horror movie for the hosts. Down the left, again and again, saved by last-ditch challenges from Pepe or Casillas. Iniesta is replaced by Pedro.
90 min: There will be three additional minutes of this.
FULL TIME: Real Madrid 1-3 Barcelona. A minor brouhaha about naff all on the edge of the Barca area. Free kick to Real. Ronaldo and Alonso faff around, and there we have it. Real Madrid went into this game as the form horse, and the favourites. They come out of it having been put in their place by the Spanish and European champions, who responded brilliantly to conceding a goal in the first 21 seconds. The teams are level on points at the top of the table, though Real have a game in hand. The title race is very much still on, as opposed to being over, which is where we would have been had Cristiano Ronaldo taken his gilt-edged chances. So much for the pre-match discussion about a changing of the guard. And the less said about our prediction of Real Madrid 3.8 - 2.882352941176471 Barcelona the better.