MADRID - Barcelona took a giant stride towards a third straight La Liga title when they drew 1-1 at 10-man Real Madrid on Saturday to preserve their eight-point lead over their arch rivals at the top with six games left.
In a tense encounter at a packed Bernabeu, the first of four clashes between the teams in three competitions in 18 days, Lionel Messi put Barca ahead from the spot in the 53rd minute after Raul Albiol was sent off for a foul on David Villa.
The champions were cruising towards a sixth consecutive victory in the "Clasico" under coach Pep Guardiola when Dani Alves felled Marcelo and the referee awarded another penalty, converted by Cristiano Ronaldo in the 82nd minute.
With Wednesday's King's Cup final and the two-legged Champions League semi-final still to come, Real may take some comfort from the fact they managed to come from behind to snatch a point despite a numerical disadvantage.
Barca will perhaps feel they squandered a chance to bury their rivals in the league title race in front of a television audience of millions as they bid for a repeat of their 2009 treble of domestic league and cup plus Champions League.
"Coming to the Bernabeu and drawing is a very good result," Guardiola told a news conference. "At 1-0 we perhaps should have put more pressure on Real's goal. We'll try to continue in the same vein so we can be champions."
The Catalan club are on 85 points from 32 matches, with Real on 77, and also have a superior head-to-head record thanks to their 5-0 demolition of Real at the Nou Camp in November that would clinch the title if the pair finished level on points.
Guardiola's Real counterpart Jose Mourinho, a former Barca assistant coach who eliminated them from last season's Champions League while in charge at Inter Milan, said Albiol's dismissal had made it impossible to win the match.
"It was a very balanced game when we were playing 11 against 11," he told a news conference.
"Barca is the best team in the world at holding on to the ball," added the Portuguese, who was incensed that Alves was not shown a second yellow card in the penalty incident. "With 11 against 10 they were able to do what they wanted."
Despite needing all three points to reignite their title challenge, Mourinho opted for an unusually defensive lineup, with playmaker Mesut Ozil relegated to the bench and centre-back Pepe deployed as one of three defensive midfielders alongside Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira.
Barca were content to play the ball around in midfield in the early stages without making much progress towards goal, while the home side looked to catch the visitors on the break.
Barca's first chance came in the 19th minute when Andres Iniesta lifted a pass into Messi's path.
The World Player of the Year controlled the bouncing ball with his head but goalkeeper Iker Casillas blocked his attempted lob with relative ease.
Real were lucky not to concede a penalty shortly afterwards when Casillas appeared to bring down his Spain team-mate Villa in the penalty area without making contactn with the ball.
Marcelo then played Ronaldo through in the 34th minute but a superb covering tackle from fullback Adriano Correia thwarted the Portuguese forward.
A brilliant passing move involving Iniesta and Villa put Messi clear again in the 44th and Casillas had to be at his best to keep out the La Liga top scorer's fierce drive.
Real came desperately close to breaking the deadlock a minute later but Adriano cleared Ronaldo's close-range header off the line.
Ronaldo crashed a free-kick off the base of a post shortly after the break before Albiol hauled Villa down and the referee ruled he was the last man in defence and brandished a red card.
Messi's goal was his 30th in the league this season and his first against a team coached by Jose Mourinho in 12 attempts according to Barcelona, while Ronaldo's 29th of the campaign was his first against the Catalan side in seven games.
The late equaliser lifted Real and their Germany midfielder Khedira had a great chance to win the match in the final minute but shot straight at Victor Valdes.
"We needed a win to maintain a realistic chance and it's a result that puts us further away from the title," Real director general Jorge Valdano said in an interview with Spanish TV.
"But as long as there is life there is hope and Real Madrid never throws in the towel before the end," he added.comments