Barca close in on title after 'Clasico' draw

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates his goal during the Spanish La Liga match against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Saturday. (AP)

Barcelona took a giant stride towards a third straight La Liga title when they drew 1-1 at 10-man Real Madrid on Saturday to preserve their eight-point lead over their arch rivals at the top with six games left.

In a tense encounter at a packed Bernabeu, the first of four clashes between the teams in three competitions in 18 days, Lionel Messi put Barca ahead from the spot in the 53rd minute after Raul Albiol was sent off for a foul on David Villa.
The champions looked to be cruising towards a sixth consecutive victory in the ‘Clasico’ under coach Pep Guardiola when Dani Alves felled Marcelo and the referee awarded another penalty, converted by Cristiano Ronaldo in the 82nd minute.
With Wednesday’s King’s Cup final and the two-legged Champions League semifinal still to come, Real may take some comfort from the fact they managed to come from behind to snatch a point despite a numerical disadvantage.
Barca will perhaps feel they squandered a chance to bury their rivals in the league title race as they bid for a repeat of their 2009 treble.
The Catalan club, who also have a superior head-to-head record thanks to their 5-0 demolition of Real at the Nou Camp in November, have 85 points from 32 matches, with Real on 77.
“We needed a win to maintain a realistic chance and it’s a result that puts us further away from the title,” Real director general Jorge Valdano said in an interview with Spanish TV.
“But as long as there is life there is hope and Real Madrid never throws in the towel before the end,” he added.
Despite needing all three points to reignite their title challenge, Real coach Jose Mourinho opted for an unusually defensive lineup, with playmaker Mesut Ozil relegated to the bench and centre back Pepe deployed as one of three defensive midfielders alongside Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.
Barca were content to play the ball around in midfield in the early stages without making much progress towards goal, while the home side looked to catch the visitors on the break.
Messi’s goal was his 30th in the league this season and his first against a team coached by Jose Mourinho, while Ronaldo’s 29th of the campaign was his first against Barcelona.
The late equaliser lifted Real and their Germany midfielder Khedira had a great chance to win the match in the final minute but shot straight at Victor Valdes.
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