Barcelona capped an unforgettable week by beating Real Madrid 2-0 in 'El Clasico' at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday to take pole position in the La Liga title race.
Victory allowed the defending champions to open up a three-point lead over Real at the summit with seven games left. Lionel Messi followed up his quadruple against Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-final win on Tuesday with the opener on 32 minutes for his 27th league goal of the season and 40th in all competitions.
Pedro Rodriguez struck the second on 55 minutes as Barca and their coach Pep Guardiola won their fourth consecutive Clasico and inflict a first home defeat on Real after a perfect 15 league wins.
"The title isn't won yet because there are some games left but this was a big step for us," said Messi. "We have beaten Real Madrid who we have a lot of respect for. We can be better than anyone if we have the desire and work hard."
Real had won 12 consecutive league games to go above Barca on goal difference in ther table and were out to avenge the 6-2 drubbing by their old rivals at the Bernabeu last season. However, treble winners Barcelona had other ideas and after reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League by swatting aside Arsenal they are now in the box seat to retain their title. Real must recover quickly as the league is their only hope of silverware and their fans will also fear seeing Barcelona lifting the Champions League in the May 22 final at their Bernabeu stadium home.
Real were boosted by the return of Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso from suspensions and both started. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who bagged the winner in the 1-0 Clasico win at Camp Nou in late November, had been ruled out for Barca so Guardiola chose to play without a recognised target man. Carles Puyol played at right back giving Dani Alves a more attacking role down the right wing with Messi having a free role in the centre.
Messi v Ronaldo draws a big crowd
A bumper 80,000-plus crowd packed in to watch the duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two most recent Ballon D'or winners, and both were prominent early on. Messi, full of confidence after his four goals against Arsenal, went down on 11 minutes under the challenge of Raul Albiol but saw his penalty appeal turned away.
Ronaldo nutmegged Sergi Busquets only to over-run the ball and Gerard Pique cleared. With half an hour gone neither goalkeeper had been called into action but Barcelona made their first chance count. Messi played a neat one-two with Xavi before controlling the ball on his chest and firing past Iker Casillas. Real should have equalised with Alonso heading over from close range before Gonzalo Higuain blazed over when well-placed.
The second goal arrived on 55 minutes. Xavi released a terrific pass to Pedro who controlled brilliantly before accelerating away from Alvaro Arbeloa and curling the ball past Casillas. Real brought on Guti a minute after the second goal and the substitute produced a pinpoint pass for Rafael van der Vaart to go one-on-one with Victor Valdes but the goalkeeper defied the Dutchman with his legs.
Valdes denied Ronaldo on 65 minutes before Casillas pulled off two wonder saves to stop Messi getting what would have been his fourth league hat-trick of the season. Substitute Raul found the net in the final few minutes but the goal was ruled out for handball to sum up Real's miserable night.
Earlier Sevilla enhanced their hopes of a top four finish and Champions League football as they came from behind to win 2-1 at Malaga and move three points ahead of fifth-placed Real Mallorca. Elsewhere Villarreal beat Sporting Gijon 1-0 at home to move into the top six, a point above Athletic Bilbao.