MADRID – FC Barcelona got a first-half goal from Ivan Rakitic in a 1-0 La Liga victory on Saturday night over Real Madrid, which lost for the second time in four days to its archrival at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
The league-leading Catalans’ victory in the matchday-26 contest, which was marred by an incident involving Blancos defender Sergio Ramos and Barça superstar Lionel Messi, gives them a whopping 12-point lead over the third-placed Madrid side with only a dozen games remaining in the season.
The hosts got off to a promising start and had some chances in Barcelona’s area in the early going, but Karim Benzema was off the mark with one attempt on goal before a shot by Luka Modric was cleared away by Barça defender Gerard Pique.
But Barcelona started asserting their superiority soon afterward, creating more and more danger with every foray into the hosts’ area until getting on the board with a goal by Rakitic in the 26th minute.
The Croatian international produced a Messi-like finish on the play, receiving a pass on the right side from Sergi Roberto and then dinking a shot over a sliding Ramos and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who had hit the turf trying to prevent a low shot from getting past him.
Over the next 13 minutes, Messi came close to scoring on a curling free kick and Luis Suarez had a chance to double Barcelona’s lead on a low shot that Courtois did well to save.
But the biggest drama at the close of the first half involved the ever-controversial Ramos, who beat Messi to a loose ball and in the process hit the Argentine in the face with his left arm.
Messi reacted furiously and the two players stared each other down forehead-to-forehead, but no yellow card was awarded.
After the break, roughly 25 minutes went by without a clear scoring opportunity.
It finally came in the 70th minute when Messi played a sublime pass on the left side to Ousmane Dembele, but the French winger struck his shot just wide of the far post.
Real Madrid, for their part, failed to score against Barcelona for the third straight time in front of their home fans.
But just as in their 3-0 loss on Wednesday in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals, the culprit was poor finishing not a lack of effort and determination.
Raphael Varane had a chance to score the equalizer in second-half stoppage time, but his close-range header off a cross from Dani Carvajal went straight to keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Messi, meanwhile, went home without a goal, although he nearly ended the game in style with a curling shot from the penalty arc that traveled just wide of the upright.
Afterward, Pique hailed the atmosphere at the Bernabeu.
“There are other matches where it’s hard to get motivated. When we come here, it’s in the right conditions and to get the three points.”
Referring to the big lead that Barcelona (60 points) enjoy over Atletico Madrid (50 points) and Real Madrid (48 points) in La Liga, Pique expressed cautious optimism.
“We’ve struck a key blow in La Liga. I don’t know if it’s the final one because there are a lot of games left. The results show we’re in good shape,” he added.