Real Madrid beats Barcelona in El Clasico to go top of Spanish league

Real Madrid's Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, April 10, 2021. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

MADRID -- Real Madrid continued its impressive run on Saturday, going top of the Spanish league with a 2-1 win over Barcelona in what may have been Lionel Messi's last league clasico.

The victory in pouring rain in the Spanish capital left Madrid tied on points with Atletico Madrid, which on Sunday can return to the top when it visits sixth-place Real Betis. Madrid is ahead of its city rival on the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Barcelona, which had been unbeaten in 19 straight league games, stayed one point off the lead.

Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos scored first-half goals to give Madrid its sixth straight win in all competitions. The defending league champions were coming off a win over Liverpool in the first leg of the quarterfinals of the Champions League on Tuesday.

"It was a very important victory for us," Madrid defender Nacho Fernandez said. "It's always special to win a clasico, and even more when we are so close together at the top in the fight for the title. You could say today was a final, but there is still a lot left in the league."

Barcelona got on the board in the second half with a goal by ?scar Mingueza. It nearly equalized with a shot from young substitute Ilaix Moriba that struck the crossbar in the final play of the match.

"We tried until the end but it wasn't possible. We almost had it in that final play," Barcelona's Sergi Roberto said. "We depended on our own results had we won, but now we need to hope that our rivals stumble. We will keep fighting until the very end."

This was the first time Madrid has taken the league lead since the early rounds of the competition, and it trailed Atletico by 11 points at one stage.

The result ended Barcelona's six-match winning streak in the league. It had won nine away matches in a row in the competition.

The 33-year-old Messi, who reached seven straight clasicos without a goal, has his contract with Barcelona ending this season. The Argentina star expressed his desire to leave the Catalan club last year but had the request denied.

One of his best chances was with a corner kick that curled across the area and hit Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' far post in first-half stoppage time. Messi's free kick in second-half stoppage time was easily stopped by Courtois.

It was an even start at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium in Madrid's training centre, but the hosts opened the scoring in the 13th minute with Benzema's superb flicked shot from close range after a low cross by Lucas Vazquez.

The French striker, who has scored 10 goals in his last nine matches, got in front of Barcelona defender Ronald Araujo and flicked the ball toward the net with his back foot. He hadn't scored against Barcelona in nine consecutive clasicos.

The Catalan club complained of a foul by Vazquez on Messi just moments before the opening goal.

Kroos added to the lead in the 28th from a free kick following a foul on Vinicius Junior, who was coming off an outstanding performance in Madrid's 3-1 win over Liverpool. Kroos shot from just outside the area and the ball deflected on American defender Sergino Dest before going into the net.

Madrid almost added to the lead in the 34th when Federico Valverde hit the post after a breakaway led by Vinicius Junior, who also hit the post in the second half. That was after Barcelona pulled one back in the 60th with a shot from inside the area by Mingueza after a low cross by Jordi Alba.

Madrid played the final minutes a man down after Casemiro was sent off with a second yellow card.

The visitors complained about being denied a penalty in the final minutes, with Barcelona coach Ronald Koeman saying it was ``a clear penalty.''

"I don't know why there is VAR in Spain," he said.

Madrid got the win despite a depleted defence _ with the absences of central defenders Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos. Barcelona was without the injured Gerard Pique.

Right back Vazquez, who has been key for Madrid in recent games, had to be replaced due to an injury before halftime.

Barcelona's next match is the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, while Madrid travels to England to play Liverpool again in the Champions League on Wednesday.

CALA PLAYS

Juan Cala, who last weekend was accused of racially insulting Valencia defender Mouctar Diakhaby, played from the start in Cadiz's 1-0 win at Getafe.

Cala denied any wrongdoing and the Spanish league said Friday it had not found evidence to support Diakhaby's accusation against the Cadiz player.

OTHER RESULTS

Athletic Bilbao was held 0-0 at home by second-to-last Alaves to extend its winless streak to five matches in all competitions. The winless run of last-place Eibar reached 14 matches after a 1-0 home loss to eighth-place Levante.

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