FC Barcelona took a giant stride towards a second UEFA Champions League final in three seasons after Lionel Messi struck twice in the final 15 minutes, the second a memorable solo strike, to earn victory at ten-man Real Madrid CF.
The third game between these eternal rivals in less than a fortnight proved just as intense as the first two, the balance tipping decisively in Barça's favour a minute past the hour when Pepe's dismissal left Madrid a man short. Messi made them pay with two late goals, touching in a low cross from substitute Ibrahim Afellay to break the deadlock and then slaloming his way past four players to score a second that leaves Madrid with it all to do at the Camp Nou on Tuesday.
Despite Saturday's 6-3 win at Valencia CF, coach José Mourinho opted to revert to the more defensive tactics that brought Madrid a 1-1 Liga draw and a Copa del Rey triumph against Barça in the first two instalments of this four-part contest. Xavi Hernández and Cristiano Ronaldo warmed the gloves of Iker Casillas and Víctor Valdés respectively early on but it was the visitors who took control as they sought to break through a stubborn Madrid rearguard.
With ten minutes on the clock, David Villa – who ended an eleven-game scoreless streak against CA Osasuna at the weekend – came close to finding the net again after stealing in from the right to send a shot flying just past Casillas's far post from the edge of the area. Josep Guardiola's side fashioned another opening through the middle with half-time approaching, Messi squeezing past the combined challenge of Xabi Alonso and Raúl Albiol before slipping a low pass through for Xavi whose shot was parried by Casillas.
As the teams went off for the break, Barcelona's reserve goalkeeper José Pinto was sent off following an incident involving a number of players from both sides. Mourinho introduced Emmanuel Adebayor at the restart and immediately Madrid's attack looked more muscular, Ronaldo going close from an Alonso free-kick before firing over from a set piece of his own.
Madrid's momentum was checked in the 61st minute when Pepe was shown a red card for a high challenge on Daniel Alves, Mourinho being sent to the stands for his own protests. Barcelona quickly regained the upper hand, Villa bringing the best out of Casillas after cutting in from the left.
Messi then took over, although his first goal owed much to Afellay, the substitute exploiting a Marcelo slip to advance into the penalty area and provide a cross that was steered in at the near post for Messi's tenth goal in this season's competition. The Argentinian needed little help for his 11th three minutes from time, collecting a pass from Sergio Busquets just inside the Madrid half and racing past four defenders before slotting past the exposed Casillas.
In addition to Pepe, Madrid will also be without Sergio Ramos – booked early in the second half – in Barcelona next week. The Catalan club, meanwhile, are within touching distance of another final, possibly a repeat of the 2009 showpiece against Manchester United FC.