Barcelona's 4-3 victory at the home of its hated rival on Sunday had everything and enough controversy – in the form of three disputed penalty kick calls – to fuel debate and speculation until the end of the campaign and beyond.
And amid all of it was the timeliest of reminders that Messi is as potent of a force as ever, even if Ronaldo's more consistent body of recent work means that many believe he is now the best soccer player on the planet.
This storied rivalry between the most iconic clubs in the Spanish league can never be about just one man, or two. It is about history and tradition and an eternal struggle for power and prestige. Yet over the course of 90 minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu, Messi was the decisive factor – an oasis of calm in a clash that often got heated – and central to everything that went right for Barcelona.
The Argentinian superstar set up one goal and scored three more, as he simply refused to be beaten on a night where the narrative always seemed ready to shift in a new unpredictable direction.
Messi has been somewhat short of his best in this injury-marred season, but it is the kind of "poor" campaign that most players would die for. When he is at 80 percent, he is still destructive. When he is at his peak, as he was on Sunday, there is no one to match him, Ronaldo included.
It took just seven minutes for him to set up Barca's opening goal with a perfect pass to Andres Iniesta to run onto and then smash into the top corner, a clinical finish to a clinical move. But Real, hungry to secure the La Liga championship after being title favorites since the turn of the year, bounced back. Karim Benzema struck twice within four minutes midway through the first half, capitalizing on jitters in the Madrid defense and, for his first, a goalkeeping error from Victor Valdes.
Messi made sure things were evenly poised by the break, though, skipping through a congested penalty area to fire home a left-footed equalizer. Ronaldo could not conjure the kind of dominant display he has managed so often this season, but his penalty after being tripped by Dani Alves in the 54th minute put the hosts back in front. Replays showed that the infraction actually occurred just outside the box, but without the benefit of video assistance it was hard to blame the referee entirely.
At that point, Real Madrid had to like its chances of hanging on and effectively bumping Barcelona out of title contention. But Messi had not yet had his final say. The game effectively turned on his beautiful pass into the path of Neymar, who was pulled down by Sergio Ramos to draw the Spanish international defender a red card and allow Messi to level things from the penalty spot.
Short-handed, Real could not stop the Barca attacking juggernaut. With six minutes left, the visitors earned another penalty when Iniesta was blocked by Xabi Alonso. Sure enough, Messi dispatched another perfect spot kick, and the victory was secure.
The diminutive star now has a record 20 career goals in El Clasicos and his efforts on Sunday have left the scrap for the title delicately poised. This season features the rarest of things in Spanish soccer: a three-way battle for the top spot with Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid on 70 points and Barcelona now just one point back and with all the momentum.
For all his genius, Messi is still questioned about his position among the all-time greats of the game. Given that soccer has never been more physically demanding and that its players have never been better schooled and prepared, his ability to dominate should be enough to make such claims appear utterly foolish.
If he can ride this fresh wave of confidence all the way through the summer and finally deliver his best at Brazil 2014 to help win the World Cup for Argentina, there may not even be a discussion any more.