BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The meetings between Barcelona and Real Madrid had become less and less about football lately, dominated instead by sideshows centered on ugly accusations, red cards and infamous eye pokes.
That was until Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo combined Sunday to return one of football's greatest rivalries to its rightful place, matching each other with a pair of two-goal performances that fully lived up to their stature as the best players in the world.
The 2-2 draw didn't lack potential distractions, with Madrid defender Pepe calling Andres Iniesta a flopper, and tens of thousands of Catalan separatists clamoring for independence from the rest of Spain. But Messi and Ronaldo's dazzling duel overshadowed all premature title forecasts and controversies, with the chase for the Ballon D'Or award providing the perfect backdrop. The shortlist of candidates for the world player of the year award will be announced on Oct. 30, with Messi and Ronaldo the two leading contenders.
"It would have been better to win, but they have a great player (in Ronaldo). It was an evenly matched game," said Messi, whose Barcelona maintained its eight-point advantage over titleholders Madrid.
Even though spirits were kept in check during their first two contests in the Spanish Super Cup this August, games between the two powerhouses in recent seasons have often been marred by aggressive play and on-pitch scuffles. Madrid had seen seven players sent off in their previous 13 matches with Barcelona.
"(Sunday) was a day for everyone to be content and proud of their team," Alfredo Relano, editor of sports daily AS, wrote in his column on Monday. "It was a fine game, played with complete honor by all. ... Finally, we saw embraces afterward, farewells between friends who had done their job and could go to the showers satisfied that they had given it their all."
Messi and Ronaldo have been shattering records and tormenting opposing defenses throughout Spain and the rest of Europe for several seasons. The 25-year-old Messi scored a European club-record 73 goals in all competitions last campaign, and set a Spanish league record with 50. Ronaldo, two years older at 27, was right behind Messi with 46 league goals, and he has recorded an amazing 160 goals in 155 games in just over three years with Madrid.
But never before had their mastery of the sport been showcased so vividly in a head-to-head matchup.
Ronaldo's first goal was a combination of precision and power as he sliced Karim Benzema's pass with a single touch between the near post and goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
With Madrid surging forward, Messi then responded with a never-give-up effort, sneaking in among Madrid's bulking defenders to grab a loose ball and audaciously poke it home.
The Argentina forward then stepped up to convert a sublime free kick from almost 25 yards out that he himself had earned by drawing a foul with another intrepid incursion through the heart of Madrid's defense.
Messi's dipping free kick, reminiscent of the one he scored at the Santiago Bernabeu in the return leg of the Spanish Super Cup, gave him 17 career goals against Madrid. Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, who played in the 1950s-60s, holds the record of 18.
"It would be an honor to equal Di Stefano's record because he meant so much (to football)," Messi said.
Ronaldo, however, was not done, and he worked into position to receive Mesut Oezil's pass and coolly slot by Valdes to silence the 98,000 strong Camp Nou crowd and justly split the points.
Madrid could have gone up 2-0 if Benzema hadn't scuffed a clean look off the upright, while Barcelona's Martin Montoya almost snatched a late victory with a long strike that hit the crossbar. But it seems apt that neither team could say they were better on such a night.
Madrid-friendly sports daily Marca echoed coach Jose Mourinho with its headline Monday: "From another planet: Messi and Ronaldo show with their doubles why they are the best in the world."
Mourinho, who accused Barcelona of receiving preferential treatment by referees in the Champions League two seasons ago, was seemingly disarmed by the pair of competing superstars.
"Everyone is happy (with the result) because many times these important games are too tactical, and there are not enough goals, but this 'clasico' match had everything that people like to see," Mourinho said.
Mourinho even appears to have made progress in his relationship with counterpart Tito Vilanova, who received a finger in the eye from the Portuguese coach just over a year ago at the end of a heated encounter.
"I thought it was a great game, and I told Vilanova so afterward," Mourinho said.