El Clásico. Another chapter in the extraordinary career of Messi

Guillem Balague

Last weekend’s heart-stopping Clasico shows us many things and, for the umpteenth time, just why, with all its faults and imperfections, we love this game so much.

It also shows just why, on occasions, we can get it so wrong.

The signs looked ominous for Barcelona before the game. No Neymar, talk and speculation about the end of a cycle, a new era at the Camp Nou, and all eyes focused on a Real Madrid side that seemed to have adopted a mantra that somehow prevented them losing.

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On paper it looked a stone cold certainty that Real Madrid would secure the win that would put them six points ahead, with a game in hand and a better head to head and ever closer to their first title for five years.

Lionel Messi nets the last-gasp winner against Real Madrid
Lionel Messi nets the last-gasp winner against Real Madrid

Leo Messi would probably agree but would also add that, lest we forget, football, as the old saying has it, is not played on paper but on grass and on the right day, given the right conditions and circumstances, whoever you are, wherever and however you play, he has the power in his locker to destroy you.

Sunday’s Clasico was one such occasion.

I have worked with Leo many times in the past on commercial assignments and know that he is by nature a reserved man who is as meticulous in preparing answers to questions asked him as he is instinctive in dealing with problems he often encounters in the cut and thrust of the game.

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Yet sometimes when asked a question like what is more important in football, individual brilliance or top class organisation he will, maybe somewhat surprisiingly, cite the latter.

In truth ultimately what earned Barcelona this unexpected victory against Real was a combination of both and what gave Messi the chance to show his passion on the pitch to go along with the order and organisation to dispel, at least for the time being, thoughts that this was a Barcelona side at the end of the road.

Lionel Messi bore the brunt of Real Madrid's physical challenge - then stunned them
Lionel Messi bore the brunt of Real Madrid's physical challenge - then stunned them

Lately we have been seeing more and more examples of gestures from Messi that suggest he is now happy to show his real passion on the pitch. Santiago Garces’ undoubtedly soon to become historic and iconic picture of Messi jumping into crowd after Sergio Roberto’s winner against PSG was a case in point.

On Sunday night in front of a stunned Bernabeu crowd he re-ignited the title race with his last-gasp winner which just happened to be his 500th goal for Barcelona and scored against their most deadly rivals in their own back yard.

The reaction that followed was that of a man that had endured being elbowed by Marcelo, stamped on by Casemiro, and the subject of a two-footed lunge that saw saw Madrid captain, Sergio Ramos dismissed and then hit back in precisely the way that great players do.

His almost sotto-voce display of his shirt following his goal seem to announce to the crowd and opposition, “You’ve done your worst and I’m still here and have achieved this in the most iconic of places.”

And yet somehow this was Messi showing his greatest rivals, the greatest of respect because both he and the other true great, Cristiano Ronaldo will know better than anyone that to be adjudged the best then it only really counts if you can prove it against the very best.

Cristiano Ronaldo suffered another el Clasico nightmare
Cristiano Ronaldo suffered another el Clasico nightmare

He will have loved it not least because It will have taken him back to those days in Rosario, to the ‘canchas’, those potholed, glass-strewn, dog-messed, dustbowls that Leo used to spend every waking hour on honing his talents, while other youngsters, twice as big and a tenth as talented used to try to stop him by any means, fair or foul

How great Real Madrid have been in the past is shown that despite his prolific scoring record, amazingly he had only scored four goals in the previous 11 clasicos and when asked why that was I have to say I was stumped for an answer because within that period we had a good, a bad and an indifferent Barcelona.

That he should have achieved this magnificent milestone in the veritable 'Jerusalem’ of football will not be lost on him.

But back to the matter of individual brilliance versus organisation because Messi’s magic would have been for nothing without Jose Enrique’s tactical plan.

Barcelona still track back badly in defence, do not defend set pieces well, and also look vulnerable unless they defend high.

What Luis Enrique soon realised was that Real Madrid’s weakness centred around Casemiro.

Despite being highlighted as one of the highspots of the Madrid season he is also one of their main weaknesses largely because of his tendency to rush into positions leaving spaces that are not covered and handing Messi the chance to exploit the extra space granted to him through the middle.

Sergio Ramos was sent off for a terrible foul on Lionel Messi
Sergio Ramos was sent off for a terrible foul on Lionel Messi

That is precisely why the 3:4:3 system used by Luis Enrique in the past doesn’t work. It creates a funnel and kills the space for him to work with and what we saw here was a liberated Messi given the chance to do what he does best.

And following on from - or perhaps as a direct consequence of - Messi’s display we saw a performance from Ivan Rakitic culminating in a stunning strike that gave Barcelona a 2-1 lead and a reminder once again that while form is temporary, class is permanent.

We also saw displays from Barcelona’s much maligned full backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba who proved how much better they can perform in this system and who both played a significant part in Leo Messi’s history making winner and we also saw world class displays from ter Stegen and Keylor Navas who showed on the biggest of stages they are truly two of the best goalkeepers playing today.

These days it seems impossible to praise Messi without simultaneously slating Ronaldo - and vice versa.

Stuff and nonsense. Criticism of Cristiano on this occasion is totally unjustified and those seeking to praise the achievements of one alongside a commensurate deprecation of the other are missing the point.

Cristiano has re-invented himself as a centre forward and a striker and as such is there to try to finish what is created for him. With a view to becoming the perfect striker he has lost three kilos in weight and muscle volume from the top part of his body while lookingto re-inforce the muscle in legs to help him to become the perfect striker.

Sunday night was not his day but mark my words, the day will come for him, probably sooner rather than later just as it did for Leo at the Bernabeu. I have said it before and I will go on saying it. One day our descendants will marvel at the fact that we were lucky enough to see the two greatest ever players playing against each at the same time.

Let’s enjoy while we can.

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