Lionel Messi of old, not the old Messi, comes to Barcelona's rescue in El Clasico
MADRID – When Lionel Messi carved up the Real Madrid defense to score his side’s opening goal to level El Clasico, it silenced the Santiago Bernabeu crowd, save for a few Barcelona supporters that did not know better than to keep their mouths shut and not wear enemy colors at this heated rivalry match.
The locals, who had been celebrating Casemiro’s opening goal only moments earlier, suddenly turned on any visitors wearing Barca colors. Fans stopped facing the field and instead started hurling insults and challenges of meet-ups in the streets. This level of anxiety and frustration came well before Messi’s final act of the night, but few understood the danger of his greatness better than that whitewashed crowd in Madrid’s holiest football ground.
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Messi may not call the Bernabeu or the Spanish capital home. But on Sunday, he owned the day, the stadium and the country after Barcelona’s 3-2 victory over Real Madrid.
From the opening kickoff, Messi seemed to be a bit more driven and slightly angrier than usual. Perhaps it was because his 30th birthday (on June 24) was fast approaching and talk of him getting old was growing. Earlier in the week, a former Real Madrid player had singled out Neymar as the prince ready to be crowned king, but the Brazilian missed the game due to a rather dubious suspension.
Fortunately for Barcelona, the Argentine looked more like the old Messi than an old Messi.
His special talent forced Casemiro into a rash tackle and an early booking in the 12th minute. Later in the first half, Messi made another run that drew a foul from the Brazilian defensive midfielder, but referee Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez failed to produce a second yellow card even though the challenge clearly warranted one.
Bandaged and bloodied from a high elbow by Marcelo, Messi argued with the referee before heading into the locker room at halftime. Paco Alcacer wasn’t good enough and Luis Suarez was wildly off the mark. It was time for Messi to return to the unstoppable force that charged at defenders. He needed to find the finishing boots that had gone missing against Juventus in the Champions League only a few days earlier.
Though Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen deserved a loud round of applause, Messi earned the match ball this night.
After scoring Barcelona’s equalizer on a solo run and pinpoint finish, the ball was deflected away from the little man from Rosario inside the box before it fell to the feet of Ivan Rakitic. The Croatian’s shot fake combined with a lurking Messi created the space required for the midfielder to hit a cracking strike that even drew looks of appreciation from the Bernabeu faithful.
Messi had stepped up to carry Barcelona, and he finally got a little help from his friends to build a 2-1 lead.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane substituted Casemiro to avoid falling into Messi’s trap and giving Barcelona a numerical advantage only three minutes before Rakitic’s goal, but on this day, the Argentine was unplayable. And he would draw the most crucial call when the “little flea” hurdled over and avoided a two-footed and full-blooded challenge that got Sergio Ramos sent off.
On his way off the pitch, Ramos ironically applauded the match referee. That means he’s likely facing the same three-match ban Neymar received for a similar action against Malaga.
Normally, when Neymar is around, Messi has the ability to rely on his heir apparent to make the darting runs and perform a great deal of the running, dribbling and dodging that the Argentine has become famous for over the past decade. Against Real, though, Messi looked like a man on a solo mission to go to the home of his rivals and remind the fans that he is still the source of their biggest nightmares.
After James Rodriguez leveled the score at 2-2 only three minutes after coming off the bench, the game seemed destined for a draw, which would’ve allowed Real Madrid to maintain a three-point lead with a match in hand. The Bernabeu had taken to singing, celebrating and whistling for the final whistle when Barcelona put one final move together. Of course, only one player with the world’s most famous left foot would finish the chance.
Off came the shirt. Messi taunted and screamed at the Madridistas blanketed in white robes, pointing to the name that would keep them up for at least one more night and the name they would wake up cursing in the morning.
Indeed, Messi did not look old. He looked like the old Messi.
“After so many years he is still decisive,” club captain Andres Iniesta said about Barcelona’s No. 10. “It is an honor and a blessing for the club to have him.”
However, Cristiano Ronaldo looked every bit of his 32 years and then some by flubbing chance after chance and lying on the pitch motionless and in disbelief at how his supernatural powers had gone missing. He may not be done or close to it, but on Sunday, Ronaldo didn’t belong on the same pitch as Messi. Comparing the 90-minute performances of the two superstars sharing top billing, one would have a tough time finding anything positive to say about the Portuguese forward.
Under the brightest lights and during the biggest moment, Messi again shone brightest. And he reminded the football-loving world of his unique talent that should be appreciated as long as he chooses to entertain.
“He is the best player for me in history and I have seen a lot of football,” Barcelona manager Luis Enrique said of Messi after the match.
Added Enrique: “The fact he has scored his 500th goal shows all of us that Barca fans are lucky to have him identified with the club.”
In Madrid, Ramos’ famous 93rd-minute stoppage time goal in the 2014 Champions League final is honored with the phrase “Minuto Noventa y Ramos” – minute 90 and Ramos – to celebrate the timing and importance of said goal. Messi’s final-kick-of-the-match winner in Sunday’s El Clasico deserves to be immortalized, too – as “Minuto Noventa y Messi.”
Shahan Ahmed is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow Shahan on Twitter: @ShahanLA