As always seems to be the case, both teams were heading into El Clasico having just played in the UEFA Champions League, but unlike recent seasons, both sides had just been eliminated from the competition. Curiously enough, both fell afoul of the away goals rule, with Barcelona’s 1-0 win at Anfield inconsequential given the 1-2 loss at the Camp Nou just two weeks previous, while Real slumped to a 2-1 defeat at the Allianz Arena, which meant Bayern’s 3-2 loss in the first leg in Madrid was sufficient to progress. Heading towards kick-off the visitors found themselves six points behind the league leaders (Sevilla), and to be frank, were far from their best away from the Bernabeu. In fact, Real were playing so badly on their travels that even Atletico managed to hold them to a draw, while Villarreal (with Riquelme in his last season at the club) and Deportivo la Coruna each went one better and defeated Los Blancos. Barcelona were certainly favourites for the tie, but you can never really write off Real Madrid, especially in a Clasico...
In terms of the relative line-ups, Barcelona opted for a 3-1-3-3 of sorts, with Valdes in goal, a defense of Oleguer, Carles Puyol and Lillian Thuram, Rafa Marquez was pivote, with a midfield trio of Deco, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. In attack, Rijkaard opted for Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho. As you can see, Barcelona have come a long way since that day, but of that XI, five remain at the club, and each five are La Masia products. On the other hand, Fabio Capello had opted for a Iker Casillas in goal, with a backline of Miguel Torres, Ivan Helguera, Sergio Ramos and Michel Salgado. The midfield featured a double-pivote of Fernando Gago and Mahamadou Diarra with a narrow triumvirate of Guti, Raul and Gonzalo Higuain playing just behind Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Just a quick glance at Real’s squad for the season will show a plethora of star names and mismanaged youngsters: David Beckham, Emerson, Roberto Carlos, Robinho, Antonio Cassano, Ronaldo (for the first half of the season at least) all Galactico signings, while the fringes of the squad contained players such as Juan Mata, Esteban Granero, Diego Lopez, Javi Garcia, Francisco Pavon, Borja Valero and the now retired Ruben de la Red. To place this into a bit of context, out of that entire squad, just five players have survived from that season to this, and even then, Granero had to be bought back.
Real started the game well, and took the lead on five minutes. Gonzalo Higuain’s low cross from the left-hand side was poorly defended by Thuram and the attempted clearance fell kindly to Ruud Van Nistelrooy. Watching that goal again, I’m surprised the renowned poacher managed to score from outside the area for his 13th goal of the season after signing from Manchester United. However, they were not ahead for long.
Barcelona built from the back with Rafa Marquez playing the ball forward to Iniesta, only for the Spaniard to return the ball to the Mexican. Marquez drove forward a few yards, dragging Iniesta’s marker with him before returning the ball to Andresito. Iniesta had space in front of him, and could have turned on the afterburners for a run at the Real defense, but instead got as close as he could to Diarra, before slipping the ball past the challenge of Fernando Gago, straight to the feet of Samuel Eto’o. The striker turned and played a first-time one-two with Ronaldinho, although the latter’s pass was a little off. No worries though as Barcelona recovered possession immediately through Deco and Eto’o slipped in a delightful pass for Lionel Messi ,who had all the time in the world to pick his spot in the far corner of Casillas’ goal for his first Clasico goal. Barcelona were level thanks to a brilliantly worked teamgoal, but Madrid retook the lead just minutes later.
Real were attacking well and crucially, at pace, stretching the Blaugrana defense by releasing Guti on the left-hand side, and as the Madrid midfielder tried to cut inside, he was caught by the clumsy challenge of Oleguer and the referee pointed to the spot. Van Nistelrooy stepped up and sent Valdes the wrong way, and Real were ahead at the Camp Nou once again.
From that point onwards, the game shaped up a lot more like your modern Clasico; Barcelona were creating chances, but not entirely threatening, while Sergio Ramos got a yellow card. The game looked finely poised until Barcelona’s magician did something special – not Lionel Messi though, but Ronaldinho. Driving in from the left-flank, Ronnie was causing havoc in the Madrid defense. Just look at the sheer number of Real defenders whose eyes are fixated on the ball. I count three definite ball-watchers, with one or two more certainly looking towards the Brazilian. Naturally, as this was pre-decline Ronaldinho, the buck-toothed playmaker exchanged a lightning quick one-two with Eto’o, displaying the strength of an ox to hold off Salgado and fire a shot at goal. Casillas does well to save it, but the rebound falls nicely for Lionel Messi to emphatically thump the ball into the roof of the net for his second goal of the game. Ronaldinho’s play was excellent, and while some might say "oh, it’s a tap-in" it’s worth bearing in mind this is a 19 year-old who is finding the space and getting into goal-scoring positions against one of the best clubs in the world.
Both sides created plenty of chances, with Xavi and Messi coming close for the Blaugrana and Van Nistelrooy being denied a hat-trick by Valdes’ fine one-on-one save. However, once again, despite Barcelona’s relative dominance, it was Real who took the lead. Guti swung in the free-kick from the right-hand side and Sergio Ramos held off the challenge of Carles Puyol to direct a header goalwards. The ball was moving far too quickly for Valdes to react and cannoned in off the crossbar. With 15 minutes left on the clock, Barcelona were facing a race against time to draw level one last time.
When Deco’s thumping volley was acrobatically saved by Casillas, it appeared as though it wasn’t to be Barcelona’s night, and when the Spaniard raced from his goal to close down Ronaldinho when a goal surely beckoned, those feelings multiplied. However, you simply cannot count Barcelona out. Ronaldinho picked up possession down the left-hand side, ventured inside, dragging Salgado with him (quite literally) before firing a pass towards Lionel Messi. The pace of the pass was second only to the speed with which Messi’s mind reacted, first to control the ball, and second to retain possession when that first touch strayed a yard or so away. Helguera launched himself in a desperate lunge to stop the Argentine sensation, but missed completely and Messi drove the ball across the face of goal and into the far corner of the goal. Ramos looked devastated, Casillas was shell-shocked. The first hat-trick in a Clasico for over 10 years since Ivan Zamorano, and it was scored by a 19 year-old mop-haired kid. It was that night that Lionel Messi truly arrived on the scene. He grabbed that game by the scruff of the neck, and by God, the world hasn’t been the same since. It may have only been a point (although could have been more if the referee pointed to the spot in injury time after Ronaldinho was body-checked), but it meant so much more, both to the club and to the career of Lionel Messi. If they say a star was born the moment he scored against Albacete, this was the moment that star become a supernova.
Barcelona 3 - 3 Real Madrid Messi Hatrick HD [10/03/2007] (via ChepsiHD3)