Madrid (AFP) – Barcelona took a huge step towards regaining the La Liga title as goals from Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal beat bitter rivals Real Madrid 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday to open up a 14-point lead over the European champions.
In a recurring theme of this season Madrid were made to pay for Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema missing first-half chances as Barca took control after half-time.
Suarez rounded off a flowing counter-attack to open the scoring before Messi blasted home a penalty after Madrid defender Dani Carvajal was sent-off for punching the ball off the goal line.
And Messi was the creator as Vidal rubbed salt into Real’s wounds deep into stoppage time.
“The league isn’t finished, we haven’t even completed the first half of the season,” claimed Barca boss Ernesto Valverde on his side’s seemingly unassailable advantage.
However, victory extends Barca’s unbeaten run to 25 games in all competitions as they moved nine points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid and exacted revenge for a 5-1 thrashing on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup at the hands of Real in August.
Madrid do still have a game in hand over Barca to marginally reduce the gap at the top, but their efforts in the new year are now likely to be more focused on becoming the first side to win three consecutive Champions League titles in over 40 years.
“We are down because it is a defeat that hurts,” said Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.
“Madrid never give up, whatever happens. It is a difficult moment because we’ve lost by three goals. I could say we don’t deserve it, but that is football.”
Despite the clash between the Spanish capital’s and Catalonia’s two giants taking place just two days after three parties favouring independence for the prosperous region from Spain retained an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, there was little attention paid to politics inside the ground once the action got underway.
– Real rue Ronaldo miskick –
It could have been very different for the hosts if Ronaldo had buried a huge opportunity when he completely miskicked just 10 minutes in.
Barca didn’t threaten at all until the half hour mark when Messi finally found some room in a congested midfield to pick out Paulinho’s late run and the Brazilian’s acrobatic effort was matched by a flying save from Keylor Navas.