by Robert Barter (@RobertBarter16)
Despite what would ultimately prove Barcelona’s worst campaign since Frank Rijkaard’s final season, the Bernabéu Clásico of 2013/14 would be one of the few glimmers of exhilarating football they enjoyed under the management of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. A coach of undeniable quality, he never seemed to find his grove in the Catalan capital, failing to capitalise on the strong acquisition of Neymar as well as the blossoming of academy graduates Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto, as they club endured their first trophy-less season since 2008.
In the opposition dugout however, stood a man so endeared by the Madrid faithful that his undeserved sacking and uninspired replacement caused tremendous uproar. Approaching the end of his first campaign, Carlo Ancelotti was on course to deliver the club ‘La Decima’, as well as their 19th, and to date last, Copa Del Rey triumph. In what was the most competitive LaLiga title race in recent memory – with only four points separating the two sides as well as Diego Simeone’s valiant and hungry Atlético Madrid, the hosts were well aware that a win would put them firmly in control, while victory would leave Barcelona only one point adrift the summit.
The Nuevo Estadio Chamartín was opened on December 14th, 1947 as Real Madrid inaugurated their new stadium with a 3-1 victory over Belenenses. Built to replace the old Chamartín, the new and modern stadium, with a capacity of over 70,000 was constructed almost in symbolism to the financial stature and political standing of the team in the country. Having undergone renovations first in the 1950’s and later as a safety precaution in the 1990’s following a string of fatal stadium disasters across Europe, the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu is one of world’s most impressive, standing at the heart of the city with a capacity now tailored for 81,044 spectators.
On March 23rd, 2014 not one of those seats remained available as a wall of white serenaded both sets of players as they took the field. For all the noise and raucous atmosphere, one fell swoop from Andrés Iniesta was all it took to bring about a deathly silence.
In consequence to the acquisition of Brazilian sensation Neymar, the de facto Barcelona front three for the majority of the season involved Neymar on the left, Lionel Messi down the centre and one of Pedro or Alexis Sánchez lining up on the right. However, on the night in Madrid ‘Tata’ Martino sprung a surprise as Iniesta lined up as a left-winger, given freedom to roam towards the centre of the pitch, with Messi and Neymar rotating between the inside right and
Following a nervous start from both sides, poor positioning from right-back Dani Carvajal saw Iniesta in acres of space in behind following Messi’s inch-perfect pass. As Carvajal attempted to atone for his error, Spain’s World Cup winner cannoned his shot in off the underside of the crossbar to give the Catalans an early lead. Having struggled to settle into the contest the early goal only worsened the issue for Madrid, as another mistake in defence, this time from Sergio Ramos as he attempted to play the offside trap, saw Messi one-on-one with Diego López. Usually the next sight would be Barcelona’s brilliant forward reeling away in celebration, but the error went unpunished on this occasion.
Despite being in control the missed chance seemed to affect the mettle of both teams. Barcelona’s morale dropped while Madrid began to venture forward with increasing regularity. The focus suddenly shifted from one mercurial Argentine to another, as the evening’s proceedings quickly became the Ángel Di María show. There has perhaps never been a footballer so innately brilliant, yet so painfully inconsistent, as Di María. Having ghosted through the first twelve minutes barely registering a touch of the ball, he received possession on the left side of the pitch before a slaloming run saw him past Sergio Busquets, Dani Alves and his compatriot Javier Mascherano as he teed up Karim Benzema from six yards out. Despite the shot being blazed over the bar, the partnership between the two would be Madrid’s best attacking exponent on the night, and eventually brought about the equaliser.
After Gareth Bale picked him out in similar territory, a wonderful cross from Di María was again met by Benzema who this time made no mistake. With Cristiano Ronaldo occupying Gerard Piqué, it was the five foot seven Mascherano tasked with marking the burly Frenchman, who simply outmuscled his man to make contact with the ball first. Despite the header being hit within reach of Víctor Valdés the power was such that it found its way into the net to level the scoreline at 1-1. Three minutes later and Madrid would be in front.
For all of his attacking qualities, defending has never been the strongest tool in the arsenal of Dani Alves. Time and again Marcelo and Di María rampaged down the wing, with another cross from the Argentine finding its target. With Benzema unmarked, a last ditch effort from Mascherano to head the ball clear proved futile as, with a touch to rival that of his compatriots Platini or even Zidane, Benzema controlled the ball elegantly on his right thigh before, without letting it touch the ground, volleying it past a helpless Valdés. From 1-0 down to 2-1 up in four minutes, Los Blancos suddenly found themselves in a position to go seven points clear of their eternal rivals.
In an instance, where many would have dropped their heads, Barcelona, considering the severity of the situation, began to increase the tempo. But for a goal-line clearance from Piqué to deny Benzema a seven-minute hat-trick, the remainder of the half was played out in Madrid territory as Barcelona attempted to pry open their defence.
Approaching half-time they were finally rewarded for their efforts, as a magical dribble and one-two with Neymar saw the ball fall to Messi just inside the box and on this occasion his low drive left López helpless.
With Messi and Di María in commanding form during an enthralling first 45 minutes, the beginning of the second half was not without controversy. Cristiano Ronaldo found possession in a promising area for the first time in the contest. Having powered inside past Mascherano, a rapid turn of speed took him past Dani Alves, whose outstretched foot clattered off Ronaldo’s shin and the Portuguese forward threw himself to the ground.
There was clear contact and there could be no debating the foul, but the grievance arose from the fact that contact took place approximately half a foot outside the box yet the official awarded Madrid a penalty. Ronaldo made no mistake from the resulting spot-kick, from which the circumstance would bring about what many saw as an incredibly sanctimonious post-match interview. Following the game, Ronaldo criticised the officials, going as far as to claim that ‘they’ do not want Madrid to win the title, although the awarding of non-existent penalties might point to the contrary.
On 55 minutes Madrid were 3-2 in front and looking to seal all three points, although seven minutes later the scores would be level, both metaphorically and literally. As Jordi Alba received possession it was Messi who offered himself for the pass. Having taken the lead Madrid’s midfield became slightly more compact, leaving the front three of Ronaldo, Benzema and Gareth Bale to carry the attacking burden. When Messi received the ball a diagonal run from Neymar across the Madrid defence gave him the perfect outlet from which he set the Brazilian free.
Bearing down on goal he was clipped from behind by Sergio Ramos, whose last-ditch challenge saw him dismissed and a penalty awarded to Barcelona. This time it was Madrid’s turn to complain about the decision. In truth the contact was minimal but similar to the Ronaldo incident, Ramos was well aware of the consequences when attempting a risky challenge on a notorious play acter, while unlike the other penalty whatever contact was made actually occurred inside the box. Much like his nemesis, Messi converted from 12 yards with typical aplomb, placing the ball expertly into the right-hand corner to level it at 3-3.
The dismissal signified the end of Madrid’s attacking exploits as they were satisfied with the draw which would have ensured the four-point gap between the sides was maintained. Raphaël Varane replaced Benzema as Di María sat deeper to protect Marcelo’s left-flank. As Pedro and Alexis Sánchez struggled to impact the game from the bench, and Dani Alves agonisingly struck the post, it looked as though Madrid would see the remainder out in typical Ancelotti fashion.
After 20 minutes of scrutinising the 10-man opposition, Iniesta found possession before darting into the box. He attempted to go through a gap that simply was not there, but that was enough to invite the challenge from both Carvajal and Xabi Alonso, who were penalised at the consequence of the night’s third penalty.
About this penalty there could be no debate with clear contact made on the one Barcelona player the Madrid faithful would not dare oppose. The penalty itself, almost a carbon copy of Messi’s first, struck precisely to the right-hand side of the goal arrowing past the goalkeeper to put Barcelona in front for the second time.
At 3-4, the final goal was the last significant action of the game. Three goals and an assist from Lionel Messi ensured the title race blew wide open, while his efforts also saw him break the record of Alfredo Di Stéfano as the highest scorer in Clásico history as he moved on to 21.
As everyone finally took a breath upon the final whistle, after seven goals, three penalties and a red card, ironically neither of these sides sat first in the table. Simeone’s Atléti found themselves in command over their domineering city rivals on the head-to-head record as the win brought Barcelona to within one point.
Two months on from the Clásico, a Diego Godín header on the final weekend at Camp Nou would clinch the title for Atleti, as the trophy went away from the Real Madrid/Barcelona duopoly for the first time since Valencia’s triumph in 2004.
Full-time: Real Madrid 3-4 Barcelona.
More Classic Games from La Liga – Athletic Club vs Barcelona (2011)