A late Cristiano Ronaldo penalty ensured that the first of four Barça-Madrid Clásicos being fought over two weeks, ended all square. Messi had earlier put the Catalans a goal and a man up, after Albiol was sent off for felling Villa, but 10-man Madrid fought back for a morale-boosting draw.
It would have been greedy to expect another footballing masterclass like the one that had led to a 5-0 demolition of Real at the Camp Nou some five months ago. Unlike on that remarkable night, this time the singing on the streets was much more reserved and the crowds did not gather in their masses but in different ways the result was significant for both sides.
Madrid's inability to secure all three points leaves Barcelona eight points clear with only six games to play and all but secures a third successive league title. The result, however, will galvanise a Madrid team that Barça had mercilessly thumped for five goals without reply in their first league meeting of the season last year. Ronaldo's late equaliser may not be enough to claw back La Liga but a spirited draw when a man down will strengthen belief ahead of the imminent Copa del Rey final (on Wednesday) and Champions League semis (April 27th and May 3rd).
Despite a slow start to the match, Barcelona were boosted by the return of their hairy skipper Puyol and with just under 20 minutes on the clock, fashioned the first Clásico chance. Messi reacted quickest to a flighted through ball and after cushioning a headed first touch, attempted to lob the ball over the onrushing Casillas. The Spanish captain came out on top on this occasion but 10 minutes later he appeared to be one step behind a flying Villa, who tapped the ball past the Madrid no.1 before going to ground. To the astonishment of Catalunya, nothing was given.
Barcelona had a stranglehold on possession throughout the first period and though they created a couple of shooting opportunities, it was the Portuguese playboy in white who had the golden chance on the stroke of half-time. Like the best players in the world, Ronaldo has the ability to appear from nowhere and find space for himself but despite a free header from a corner, Adriano was the hero on the line to deflect the ball to safety.
The second half started as the first had ended with the €100 million man coming tantalisingly close to breaking the deadlock. Five minutes after the restart, Ronaldo bulleted a dipping 25 yard free-kick that beat Valdés but not the post. Almost straight from the near miss, Barcelona cleared their lines and when Albiol was adjudged to have thrown Villa to the ground, referee Muñiz Fernández pointed to the spot and held a red card aloft to signal an early bath for the Madrid defender. Messi made no mistake and the Santiago Bernabeu fell silent.
The next goal would obviously be critical and Xavi must have thought he had secured the victory when his beautifully guided shot left Casillas as a spectator, but it only clipped the top of the bar. This time, Madrid under Mourinho were not going to capitulate as they had done in the last fixture at the Camp Nou and their counter-attacking threat was rewarded in the final minutes when Marcelo beat Dani Alves for pace and was brought down by his Brazilian team mate. Ronaldo sent Valdés the wrong way and by then it was too late for a decisive blow from either side.
La Liga would appear to be staying in Catalunya but with the Copa del Rey and Champions League left to play for, you would be a brave man to rule Madrid out of securing at least one Clásico victory over the next few weeks.