Cristiano Ronaldo twisted an ankle and had to come off at half-time in a bad-tempered Clasico just three weeks before the Champions League final against Liverpool.
However, Gareth Bale stepped into his shoes and scored the goal that earned Real Madrid a point after both Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi had scored for Barcelona.
It was some night for Bale who could have been sent off in the first half and was finally booked in the second period, but only after he had reminded everyone of his ability to deliver spectacular goals on big occasions.
Barca will be happy to have kept their unbeaten record this season. They had the usual suspects to thank. Luis Suarez scored the first on nine minutes from Sergi Roberto’s pass and Messi grabbed a second in the second half from Suarez’s assist.
Ronaldo scored between the two Barcelona goals, converting from close range.
It was as he bundled Toni Kroos’ header over the line that he came down badly on his right ankle. He played on until the break but did not reappear. The early indications were that he had lightly sprained the ankle.
Messi’s goal came after Suarez had fouled Raphael Varane in the build-up. It was one of many mistakes from referee Alejandro Hernandez, who could have sent goalscorer Bale off in the first 45 minutes.
Bale was lucky not to be booked for scything down national treasure Andres Iniesta, playing his last ever Clasico.
His later challenge on Samuel Umititi was Graeme Souness Old Firm vintage. But strangely he escaped a booking again despite the clear studs down the back of the calf.
Roberto was not so lucky he raised his hand to Marcelo after the full-back and had barged him at the end of the first half. Contact looked minimal but the referee saw a slap and Roberto was shown a straight red card.
It had been a tough first half to officiate. The game had come to boil slowly at first. Philippe Coutinho kicked Marcelo. Suarez was more fired up than most and he was involved in most of the scraps now developing.
Raphael Varane was booked for holding him back as Barcelona broke. He was then booked himself for going nose to nose with Ramos. The Real Madrid defender also went into the book.
Messi was then booked for kicking Ramos. Madrid’s refusal to give newly-crowned champions Barcelona a guard of honour on to the pitch had perhaps set the tone. The Madrid players were following the lead of coach Zinedine Zidane, whose decision it was not to honour the tradition. Barcelona had responed in kind.
Before the crimes and misdemeanors came the first half goals. On nine minutes Barcelona’s No 9 scored the opener. It was one of those long one-twos that Barcelona love to play.
The wall pass that mere mortals play over five or six yards that they can play across the width of the pitch. Suarez was just over the halfway line when he played the ball out to Roberto running down the right.
His cross was perfect for anyone attacking the back post – and who was attacking the back post? Suarez had kept running and he arrived perfectly to dispatch a side-foot volley past Keylor Navas.
Suarez then tumbled over Navas’ dive and claimed a penalty. There was a shove from the keeper because he felt the Uruguayan had dived. Jordi Alba then pushed Luka Modric several times as we got a taste of the trouble to come.
Ronaldo equalized on 14 minutes, diving in to to score from Karim Benzema’s knock-down after Toni Kroos had crossed from the left.
Just as Suarez had started and finished Barcelona’s move it had also been Ronaldo’s pass to Kroos that got him going. The Uruguayan and the Portuguese are such brilliant exponents of the art of forward play with all the guile to create and the desire to finish the same move.
Messi scored the next goal. Suarez got away from Varane down the left. It looked as if he had hooked Varane’s leg from beneath him but the referee did not see the offence and he fed Messi.
The Argentinian stepped away from Ramos and then from Casemiro. He still had Navas to beat and he looked to have his right-hand corner covered but Messi someone put the ball there and Barcelona were back in front.
Madrid players surrounded the referee, Messi ran to Suarez, their double act had won this league and now they were winning the Clasico. Navas saved brilliantly from Messi and Marcelo should have been given a penalty when fouled by Jordi Alba.
Bale would have the last word. He has had a miserable season but his effortless leveler from Marco Asensio’s pass was a timely reminder of his knack of scoring big goals in important games. Madrid still have one more very important game to come – Bale’s chances of playing some part in it have been done no harm.