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The 21st Century's Most Criminally Underrated El Clásico Matches

There are hundreds of "best El Clasico" list articles out there with very little discrepancy among them. Lionel Messi's 2017 last-minute winner before lifting his jersey to a stunned Bernabéu? Obviously. Gareth Bale's surging run in the 2014 Copa del Rey Final? Gotta watch it. The 2011 Champions League semifinals? Pure drama. 

But the thing about El Clásico is that there's never a bad one. Regardless of the players on the pitch, the managers in the dugout or the stakes of the match, there's too much history, passion and quality to turn into the "shit hanging from a stick" type of encounters that the most hyped Premier League matches occasionally descend into. 

However, in the face of Cristiano Ronaldo's dominance and Lionel Messi's majesty, many memorable encounters of the 21st century have been largely forgotten while we highlight the ones that feature a Messi hat trick or a Ronaldo "SIUUU!" 

Here are six under-appreciated Clásicos worth revisiting.

The Most Underrated Clásicos Of The 21st Century   

The Anti-Icons

Anelka's Real Madrid career: 1 season, 1 Clásico goal, 1 UCL trophy  

February 26, 2000

Nicolas Anelka's career would be an incredible theater production. France's halftime dressing room talk against Mexico at the 2010 World Cup — when Anelka was replaced by André-Pierre Gignac after aiming some very, very choice words at coach Raymond Domenech — would guarantee some Tony Awards.

The beginning of his career was just as fascinating. Arriving at Arsenal from PSG for $657,000 as a 17-year-old in 1997, Anelka was departing for Real Madrid for $29 million just two years later. 

The Frenchman was Real's most expensive signing that summer, and the Bernabéu immediately expected him to contribute to a deadly frontline that already contained Raúl and Fernando Morientes. 

Fast forward seven months into the 1999-00 LaLiga season and Anelka still hadn't managed a goal. 15 league and Champions League appearances and no goals on the pitch, while off the pitch the Spanish media was giving him the same fierce criticism that had marked his final few months in England. His nickname of "Le Sulk" had followed him across the English Channel. 

Then, on Feb. 26, Anelka finally got his goal, and what a match to do it: El Clásico at the Bernabéu. 

Roberto Carlos opened the scoring in the fifth minute with a thunderous free kick. You've probably seen this one before. 

In the 19th, Anelka was first to a loose ball in the area and finished. Morientes made the final score 3-0 in the second half.

No longer the laughing stock of Madrid, Anelka would go on the play a huge role in Real's Champions League triumph that season. He started and scored in both semifinal legs against Bayern Munich (a 3-2 aggregate win) before playing 79 minutes in the 3-0 final victory over Valencia. Then he promptly joined PSG for $29 million. 

This particular Clásico also stands out as being the first for Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas. 

"I remember my first one — for me, it was the nicest one I've played in," Casillas later said. "It was a very emotional experience as it was the first time I'd faced Barcelona and it was at the Bernabéu — we won that match 3-0." 

Ibrahimović's Barcelona career: 1 season, 1 Clásico goal, 1 LaLiga trophy 

Nov. 29, 2009

It ended bitterly with José Mourinho sprinting across the Camp Nou pitch to celebrate with Inter Milan fans and Zlatan Ibrahimović telling Pep Guardiola that he "can go to hell," but it all started so gloriously in Barcelona after the Swede was presented to an adoring crowd of over 60,000 following his $76 million move from Inter.

Before the 2009-10 season's first Clásico in late November, Ibrahimović had scored seven goals and created five more in his first nine LaLiga games, although he was just returning from a thigh injury that'd sidelined him for three weeks.  

Barcelona was undefeated entering the game but still trailed Real in the table, highlighting how little was between these sides and how much this match, just three months into the season, really meant.  

After a scoreless first half at the Camp Nou, Ibrahimović replaced Thierry Henry (who was in his last year at Barça and struggling for form) in the 51st minute. Five minutes after coming on, Ibra volleyed home Dani Alves' cross to the delight of over 97,000. 

"Surely," they all must've thought, "this is the beginning of a glorious union between club and player that will never end." Nine months later Zlatan was signing a four-year deal with AC Milan and accusing Barça of buying a Ferrari but driving "it like a Fiat."  

"I had scored in the Milan-Inter derby, but doing it in El Clásico is much better," Ibrahimovic said. "There is no comparison to any other game. It's a game with an international impact, it is a world wide fixture. Everyone knows that Barça-Madrid is an exceptional game. I watched the game from the bench first and then on the pitch. When you see the atmosphere, the pressure and the noise you realize it is a unique game."  

The Draws

Welcome to Hell. Stay for a while. 

April 16, 2011

When José Mourinho was unveiled as Real Madrid manager ahead of the 2010-11 season, his mission was to stop back-to-back LaLiga champion Barcelona — Sir Alex Ferguson's "best team ever" — from winning a third.

Mourinho's first Clásico experience was a major learning experience: a 5-0 beatdown at the Camp Nou that Real Madrid director Florentino Pérez said was the worst game in the club's history.

Then, before the season's second Clásico, something incredible happened — it became certain that while the league fixture scheduled for April 16 would go some way toward deciding the title, both sides also know knew that they had a Copa del Rey final against each other on April 20 and then a two-legged Champions League semifinal on April 27 and May 3.

Four Clásicos in 18 days. Christ.

Everyone knew it would be batshit crazy with Real bringing the physicality (Mourinho infamously said that Real played "like men" while Barça "fell on the ground at the slightest touch"), and it all began with a furious 1-1 draw at the Bernabéu that saw Raúl Albiol red carded, Lionel Messi convert from the spot and Cristiano Ronaldo reply with a penalty of his own.

That result put Barça in control of LaLiga (and the Blaugrana never relinquished it), but it also stopped a Real Madrid run of defeats in El Clásico. Days later, Los Blancos defeated Barça in the Copa del Rey final thanks to a Ronaldo header in extra time. 

"Tomorrow at 8:45 p.m., we will face each other on the pitch," Guardiola said in a famous tirade after the Copa final and ahead of the Champions League semifinals. "Off the pitch he's won. He's been winning off the pitch all season. Let them give him a Champions League for it so he can enjoy it and take it home. In the press room he is 'the fucking boss' and the one who knows more than everyone else."

Barça players reportedly gave Guardiola a standing ovation when he returned to the dressing room from that press conference, and Barcelona would duly get revenge in the UCL, winning 3-1 on aggregate with Messi scoring a brace at the Bernabéu.

Messi 2 - 2 Ronaldo 

Oct. 7, 2012

After taking back the LaLiga title in 2011-12, it became clear pretty early on that Mourinho's third season with Real (2012-13) was heading toward disaster. After losing only two league matches all season the previous year, Real travelled to the Camp Nou for the first Clásico of the new campaign having already tasted defeat twice in six games. 

Barça, on the other hand, had opened up with six straight victories and knew that a pivotal moment in the title race had already arrived in early October. Almost 97,000 were inside the ground hoping to land a humiliating blow on Mourinho (who'd become beyond hated in Barcelona after poking Tito Vilanova in the eye during the previous season's Supercopa).

With both players coming off preposterous seasons (Messi: 73 goals in 60 games; Ronaldo: 60 goals in 55 games), there was also the massive subplot of this effectively being a showdown for the 2012 Ballon d'Or. 

It didn't disappoint. 

In the 23rd minute, Karim Benzema slipped in Ronaldo out wide and the Portuguese rifled a finish at the near post before hitting the "calma" celebration. 

Eight minutes later Messi responded. With the ball pinging wildly around the box, Pepe thought it'd be a great idea to hurl himself at the ground while Xavi smartly left the header uncontested. Messi was on hand to pick up the pieces and steer the ball past Iker Casillas. 

Barça then took the lead in the second half when Messi curled a sensational free kick over the wall and into the near corner. It was a piece of sorcery from the Argentine, but only five minutes later, Real sliced through Barcelona's midfield and defense with Mesut Özil releasing Ronaldo for the finish.  

"I don't know if Ronaldo has done enough (to win the Ballon d'Or)," Mourinho said after the game. "All I know is that talking about who is the best player in the world should be banned because these two are so good."

Messi would win the award that year with 41.6 percent of the vote while Ronaldo got 23.7 percent. 

The Blowouts 

Just fire it at Luis Suárez's head. 

Oct. 28, 2018

The first Clásico in more than a decade without Ronaldo, who'd transferred to Juventus in the summer, and Messi, who was out with a fractured arm. Real had started the season brightly under new manager Julen Lopetegui, winning four and drawing one of its opening five, but by the time El Clásico arrived, Los Blancos had endured a winless run of four matches with three defeats.

Barça had endured a similar winless stretch of four matches before returning to the top of the table with a victory over Sevilla, but that match had cost Messi his arm. So this meeting at the Camp Nou turned the focus on the supporting casts, and the final score could not be less indicative of what transpired on the pitch.

Barça opened the scoring with a 30-pass move that ended with a Philippe Coutinho finish. Then the first use of VAR in Clásico history allowed Luis Suárez to convert from the spot.

The home side had total control of the first half, but the narrative was completely flipped five minutes into the second 45 after Marcelo reduced the deficit to one. Luka Modrić then hit the post, Sergio Ramos headed narrowly over and Isco fired wide. A Real equalizer looked imminent, but in the 75th minute, Sergi Roberto had the wonderful idea of firing a ball at Suárez's head. Despite being 12 yards from goal, Suárez engineered a header with the sort of power usually reserved for his right foot.  

Suárez completed his hat trick in the 83rd and Arturo Vidal got a fifth in the 87th. The final scoreline of 5-1 stands out in history as a beatdown, but this was a sensational match. 

Barça won the war, but the Galácticos won this battle.  

April 10, 2005

After a six-year wait, the 2004-05 campaign marked Barcelona's return to the summit of LaLiga with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o leading the charge (this was also Messi's debut season). The title was already pretty much decided when Barça visited the Bernabéu on Matchday 31, but this was one game in which the Galácticos truly delivered. 

Want to see Ronaldo picking out Zinedine Zidane and the Frenchman converting with a diving header before inadvertently head-butting the post? How about David Beckham swinging in a free kick for Ronaldo? Roberto Carlos driving out wide before assisting for Raúl? Beckham releasing Michael Owen for a delicious counter?

And if Real isn't your thing, how about a great solo goal from Eto'o or a preposterous Ronaldinho free kick?   

This 4-2 Real victory had it all.

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