Messi, the best player in the world, looked destined to be sent from the field in the first half when he launched into a crass challenge on Xabi Alonso. Referee Fernandez Borbalan, who had already booked Messi for dissent minutes earlier, appeared to reach for another yellow card that would have banished the star from the game – only to seemingly change his mind.
The reprieve for Messi may have been the turning point in a dramatic clash, as Barca recovered from conceding a goal to Karim Benzema in the opening minute and secured a 3-1 victory.
Madrid head coach Jose Mourinho took a surprisingly calm approach in reacting to the decision, as his side surrendered the top spot in the La Liga table to its hated rival.
"It was a sending off for me," Mourinho said. "But the referee was closer and could see better, so maybe it wasn't. I think he should have been sent off, but until I see it, I will not say anything about it."
Mourinho's new tactic of resisting the temptation to shoot from the lip in the lead up to this game helped to thaw the previously frosty relationship between the two camps. Yet, whether the coach known as the Special One will be able to keep silent once he has analyzed footage of the incident remains to be seen.
Mourinho could hardly believe his fate after Madrid was on the receiving end of both some outrageous misfortune and the ruthless efficiency of a Barcelona team that refused to panic and showed why it is the reigning European champion.
"The first half was balanced but the goal in the second half was pure luck and nothing more," Mourinho said. "It is not a matter of talent or failure. Luck plays a part."
Barca's second goal came when Xavi's volley from outside the area took a huge deflection and snuck inside the post with goalkeeper Iker Casillas stranded. Its first was notched when Alexis Sanchez ran on to Messi's perfect pass and fired in the equalizer.
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The third came just moments after a bad miss from Cristiano Ronaldo, who endured a miserable night and spurned several chances. Ronaldo missed a clear-cut header that could have leveled the score but put his effort wide when left unmarked a few yards out from goal.
Within less than a minute, Barcelona had taken the ball up the field, with Cesc Fabregas powering in a diving header to complete a slick and speedy maneuver and effectively wrap up the points.
This match was seen as an opportunity for Real to take a stranglehold on La Liga and lay claim to being Europe's best side. It was a heavyweight clash in every sense, with Madrid even coming in with the chance to clinch a slice of club history by surpassing the run of 15 straight wins managed by its legendary 1960s side.
It could have gone six points clear with a game to spare, but instead, Barca propelled itself to the top of the table and grabbed a huge psychological blow in the run up to Christmas.
"I don't think it will affect Madrid's morale," Barca coach Pep Guardiola said. "They will go away for the holiday, recover and come back even stronger. There are still 70-odd points to play for, you can't say someone is already champion in November or December."
Even so, this was a night when the balance of power – one that looked ready to shift – tilted firmly back in Barcelona's favor.
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- Lionel Messi
- Real Madrid
- Jose Mourinho