Clasico sees tale of two penalties
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a late penalty to earn ten-man Real Madrid a dramatic draw from tonight's Clasico showdown with bitter rivals Barcelona at the Bernabeu. Ronaldo's 82nd-minute spot-kick cancelled out Lionel Messi's 53rd-minute penalty for Barça, which came following an incident that also saw Madrid defender Raul Albiol sent off.
Ronaldo's equaliser could prove a crucial morale booster for Madrid ahead of Wednesday's Copa del Rey final and their subsequent UEFA Champions League semi-finals against the Catalan giants, but tonight's result leaves Barça within touching distance of the league title. They remain eight points clear with only six games left now, while they also boast the better head-to-head record against Madrid having won 5-0 at the Nou Camp earlier this season.
Puyol returns to lead side
There were surprises in both starting line-ups, with Jose Mourinho selecting centre-back Pepe in midfield with dropping Mesut Ozil to the bench, while Carles Puyol was brought straight back in for Barça after three months out through injury.
Puyol had not been expected to be fit until next week's Copa del Rey final, but his return was a huge boost for Barça, whose four defeats this season have been without their skipper on the pitch.
The draw brought an end to Barcelona's five straight wins over their rivals and ended coach Pep Guardiola's 100 per cent record in the fixture. "A draw at the Bernabeu is a good result and I am happy with how we played, although maybe we could have done better at 1-0," said Guardiola. "I don't think we are league champions (yet) as we have to play against teams that are still fighting for their lives."
Real boss Jose Mourinho had seen Barcelona thump his side 5-0 at Camp Nou and still waits for his first win in the fixture. "It was very even with 11 players against 11," said Mourinho afterwards. "It was two teams that respect each other and know how powerful the other one is. It was mission impossible to play with ten men for so long against a team that are, without doubt, the best team in the world in possession."
Goalkeeper Iker Casillas explained: "Our aim was to win but it wasn't easy to get the draw playing with ten men."
After a quiet start to the match, Barça soon settled into their slick passing game and they fashioned the first clear chance in the 19th minute. Andres Iniesta's pass over the top picked out Messi's run in behind the Madrid defence, but the Argentinian's attempted lob over Iker Casillas was saved by the Spain custodian.
Madrid responded to that with two efforts of their own, Barça goalkeeper Victor Valdes fumbling Karim Benzema's shot just wide of the post before Ronaldo headed a corner over from six yards out.
Casillas escapes spotkick shout
Barça then had a huge shout for a penalty turned down in the 27th minute after David Villa beat Casillas to a Messi through-ball and went tumbling over his Spain team-mate's challenge. However, referee Cesar Muniz Fernandez deemed there to be no foul, much to the astonishment and anger of the Barça players.
The first half would end up finishing goalless, although both teams fashioned great chances to break the deadlock in the minutes leading up the interval. Firstly, a good Barça move set up a shooting opportunity for Messi which Casillas did well to beat away, then moments later at the other end an unmarked Ronaldo looked certain to score following a corner but his close-range header was cleared off the line by Adriano.
That was an exciting end to an evenly-matched first period, and the second half started off in much the same vein. Ronaldo came within inches of putting Madrid ahead in the 49th minute when his 25-yard free-kick smashed against the foot of Valdes' right-hand post with the Barça keeper beaten.
Messi strikes from the spot
However, two minutes after that let-off Barça took the lead in an incident that also Madrid reduced to ten men. Villa was dragged to the ground by Albiol as the two tussled for a through-ball, and this time Muniz Fernandez had no doubts as he pointed to the spot and issued last-man Albiol with a red card.
That gave Messi the chance to score his 49th goal of a record-breaking season in all competitions, and the Argentina forward duly obliged, firing his penalty high into the Madrid net.
Barça suffered a blow soon after that when Puyol was carried off injured on a stretcher, but that did not seem to affect the visitors too much and Xavi almost made it 2-0 in the 61st minute when his shot clipped the top of the Madrid crossbar.
Ronaldo repays penalty favour
Despite playing with a man less, Madrid still created chances and Angel Di Maria blazed one opening over before Pepe failed to convert a clear opening at the far post following a corner. With time running out Barça looked on course to equal the record of six successive Clasico victories, set by Madrid in the 1960s.
However, Madrid continued to fight and they were rewarded in the 81st minute when they were awarded a penalty following a challenge by Dani Alves on his fellow Brazilian Marcelo in the area. Barça protested but, after their appeals had been turned down, Ronaldo coolly stepped up to send Valdes the wrong way and earn Madrid a morale-boosting draw - even if the result means Barça remain firmly on course for a third successive league title.