Barcelona draw 2-2 with Real Madrid in El Clasico
Two goals apiece from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo
Catalan giants Barcelona stay eight points clear of arch-rivals
Game held against backdrop of growing demands for indepedence for Catalonia
The 222nd El Clasico – a match between Barcelona and Real Madrid which epitomizes the ultimate in team rivalry – turned into an individual showcase for the two greatest players in world football and fittingly ended in a 2-2 draw Sunday.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi scored twice to put his side 2-1 ahead in their Camp Nou Stadium after an early strike from Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
But the Portuguese star drew the reigning Spanish champions level on the hour mark with his second goal and almost certainly kept their title hopes alive.
They trail leaders Barcelona by eight points after seven games, 11 would have been almost insurmountable.
A draw was probably a fair result although it is unlikely the majority of the 98,000 fans who crammed into Barcelona’s magnificent home stadium would have agreed.
Because at stake is not just the result of a football match but the very pride and honor of the Catalan people.
Many from this semi-autonomous region of Spain want full independence and last month more than a million people demanded just that in a demonstration in Barcelona.
Former Barca manager Pepe Guardiola publicly supported that ambition, which has gathered pace in the austerity-hit country, with many Catalonia citizens believing they are paying more than their fair share into the coffers of the government in Madrid.
This feeling of Catalan identity embodied in a football club is summed up by Barcelona’s motto “mes que un club” – more than a club, and clashes against Real Madrid are chances to give vent to their feelings.
The passionate atmosphere Sunday went up a notch as Barcelona officials allowed fans to display the yellow and red colors of Catalonia in a giant mosaic, holding up cards to get the effect.
And at exactly 17 minutes and 14 seconds, chants for independence rang out in reference to the Catalans’ military defeat to the Royalists in the War of Spanish Succession in 1714.
Barcelona’s central defender Gerard Pique had tweeted Saturday that he wanted politics to say out of El Clasico.
“The games between Barcelona and Madrid increasingly resemble Catalonia against Spain and this should not happen,” he wrote.
“It’s just a football match.”
Whether all his fellow players agreed with Pique, they certainly missed him in defense as he was ruled out by injury.
The full throated chants had barely subsided when Ronaldo ran through a big gap in the Barcelona back line and shot past Victor Valdes on 22 minutes.
It was a record sixth goal in six matches against Barcelona and Real would be left to rue a miss by Karim Benzema soon afterwards which might have led to a different result.
His mishit shot hit the post and by halftime Messi had equalized after hesitation in the Real defense.
In the second half, Messi was fouled just outside the Real penalty area and got up to send an unstoppable free kick past Iker Casillas.
But Ronaldo replied when weakness at the heart of the home defense was again evident and he equalized with a low shot.
Both sides had chances to grab the three points but had to settle for a draw.
The political undertones behind the latest El Clasico found further expression in the decision by Barcelona to invite Gilad Shalit, a former Israeli soldier who was held captive in Gaza for nearly five years.
It risked alienating their many supporters in the Palestine region and the Hamas government called for a boycott of the television coverage.
Barcelona responded by inviting a former Palestine international player Mahmoud Sarsak, who had been detained by the Israelis, but he declined to come.