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.