Robbie Dunne reflects on a legacy of night the Barcelona star returned to his rightful place on El Clasico's throne
He held up his jersey to show the crowd his name just as a swift reminder of who was and still is the King of El Clasico. The crowd already knew it though. Those five letters on the back of the blaugrana shirt will haunt them for a long time to come.
For Barcelona, on Sunday night, Lionel Messi created hope where there was none and for Real Madrid, he created doubt where there shouldn't have been any. On a field filled with the brightest stars in world football, Lionel Messi went supernova and blew a hole in Real Madrid’s plot to win their first league title in five years.
El Clásico is the last bastion of hope we have as football fans. In a world of Super Sundays and Soccer Saturdays that lead to Manic Mondays, the hyped-up non-rivalries and faux-hatred is becoming apparent for everyone to see. Some of even the most grandiose and genuine rivalries cause teams to recoil in fear of losing. Barcelona and Real Madrid hate each other so much that to simply draw is never enough because to draw is to give their opponent hope and that’s the last thing they want.
On Sunday night we saw a full on assault on both Keylor Navas and Marc Andre Ter Stegen’s goalmouths and while their respective side’s inability to defend was part of the reason why, the thirst for goals was even greater and more than three points, the thoughts of seeing their great rival suffer is worth far more.
Zinedine Zidane was and will continue to be lambasted for his directions on Sunday night when, with time running out, he urged his nine outfield players to press up on a Barcelona throw. Sergi Roberto, a man who is proving himself impervious to pressure and one who seems to only come to life when seconds remain, burst forward and fed the ball to Andre Gomes, who played it into Jordi Alba’s path. The rest is history, and it was history even before Messi struck the ball. You could see the little Argentine wheeling around to the side of Real Madrid’s defense. The most marked man in all of football, and for good reason, displaying his uncanny ability to find space.
He pulled back his leg so quickly, so precisely and so dangerously that the only place he could put the ball in order to win it for Barcelona was exactly where he put it. “Don’t ever forget me name,” you can imagine him muttering when James came on and tried to steal his headlines.
But Zidane was doing what he thought was the right thing and the kind of thing we ask for in the biggest games of the year. An utter ruthlessness and a desire to win that should come before standings in the table and before time on the clock. It was naive, sure, but as football fans around the world, his courage should be applauded and for all of the self-inflicted penance we suffer sitting through 0-0 draws in games that promised much more, we were privy, one of the best Clasicos in history and a defining moment in Lionel Messi’s career in a career that is littered with them.
It’s easy to get lost in all the eulogies for Messi. He has been referred to as a martian, other-worldly, a freak of nature. But when it boils down to it, he is all sinew and bones like the other 21 players on the field at the Santiago Bernabeu on Sunday night.
Dani Carvajal, one of the best right-backs on the planet, was still swinging his leg at fresh air by the time Messi had him turned and slotted underneath Keylor Navas to get Barcelona into a game they were surely out of. It’s an unfair fight. To think of Barcelona and La Liga and the Champions League and football without Messi is simply not worth it.
He has scored 500 times for Barcelona since his debut and 23 of them have come against Real Madrid, which is more than any other player has scored in the history of the fixture. Until last night, he had not scored since a hat-trick six Clasicos ago won it for Barcelona 4-3 after two comebacks. Messi wanted to remind Real Madrid of his name, but equally, he was keen to remind the greater world that as long as he still pulls on that jersey, Barcelona will never be out of contention.