It was supposed to be a decaf El Clásico. As it turns out, that’s an oxymoron.
You could feel the electricity in the air. And the teams were lucky, the weather cleared up for them. It would have been a mud bath if the spring showers had continued.
With the La Liga title—which Barça claimed a week ago—having been relegated to a mere afterthought, and with with both teams having seemingly little to play for other than pride itself, the Spring 2018 Edition of the beautiful game's biggest rivalry had, by halftime, become one of the most contested El Clásicos ever.
In the end, a see-saw battle ended all-square as ten-man FC Barcelona hung on for a 2-2 draw with arch-rivals Real Madrid to stay unbeaten on the season and extend its all-time record La Liga undefeated streak to 42 games, dating back to last season.
Luis Suarez struck first for Barça in the 10th minute before Cristiano Ronaldo tied it up five minutes later.
But Barça fullback Sergi Roberto was shown a straight red card in first-half injury time to send Els Blaugrana down to 10 men and set the stage for a dramatic second-half that ended with each team finding the net one more time and leaving the rivalry of rivalries deadlocked at the final whistle.
Nevertheless, while the final, 2-2 score was no aberration, nobody could have guessed that’s how it would have ended when the second half opened with Barça playing shorthanded.
But just eight minutes after play restarted, Suárez wrested a ball away from Raphael Varane in the midfield and raced in on goal, picking out Leo Messi, and the Argentinian maestro did the rest. Messi beat two defenders and goalkeeper Keylor Navas to put Barça up 2-1.
It was Messi’s record-extending 26th career El Clásico goal across all competitions and his 18th goal versus Real Madrid in La Liga, also tops all-time.
If Messi’s shorthanded goal hadn’t evoked a deafening roar from the 97,939 fans who had come out for the final El Clásico of the season, it came in full force just four minutes later when Andrés Iniesta, playing in the final El Clásico of his illustrious career, was subbed out by Barça manager Ernesto Valverde.
Messi had a chance to give Barça some insurance in the 70th, but his tight angle shot on a breakaway was parried by Navas as Sergio Ramos raced to try and make a last-ditch tackle.
Meanwhile, playing a man down had put Barça at a disadvantage that Madrid had been attempting to exploit ever since play resumed. And it finally came in the 73rd, when Marco Asensio found Gareth Bale cutting into the Barça area, with the Welshman beating Jordi Alba to the ball and firing a one-time blast into the upper left corner.
But when the final whistle pierced the crisp Mediterranean night, Barça had remained unbeaten and the players congregated in the center circle to celebrate.