Lionel Messi put in man-of-the-match display at Real Madrid on Saturday. Just another night at the office for Barcelona’s talisman? Sure. But it was a marked improvement from his previous performance at the Bernabeu.
It is not often a Messi performance is questioned or criticised, but that was the case after a peripheral display in Wednesday’s 3-0 Copa del Rey win over rivals Real Madrid.
Messi was frozen out of his 40th Clasico, and would have been grateful to watch on as a Luis Suarez double and Raphael Varane own goal did the damage. A victory to celebrate, but there was plenty to address on an individual level.
"I think he is in good shape, very good shape,” said Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde after Wednesday’s win. “You always expect a lot of your players, Messi included.
"He always performs, even though in some games he performs less than in others. We have to play well in order for him to perform."
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- Jose Mourinho: Why Real Madrid lost the El Clasico
With little time to linger on Wednesday’s performance, a second Clasico just four days later presented Messi the opportunity to right the wrongs of his previous showing at the Bernabeu - and he did so in some style.
In an ultimately cagey affair, Messi was the difference on Saturday night, pulling the strings in attack and proving less containable than he did four days prior.
Ivan Rakitic may have chipped in the only goal of the game to extend Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga to 10 points, but it was Messi who put in a man-of-the-match display.
And the five-time Ballon d’Or winner improved in almost every department.
On Wednesday, Messi had no shots on goal, made 51 passes at an accuracy of 82.4%, played two key passes, had 62 touches and won 40% percent of his 10 duels.
On Saturday, Messi had six shots including one on target, made 54 passes at an accuracy of 87%, played two key passes, had 84 touches and won 50% of his 22 duels.
He may not have had a goal to add to his record tally of 26 in El Clasicos, but Messi led by example on Saturday, enjoying more touches and duels than any other player on the pitch.
Crucially, he also rose to the physical demands of the Clasico, conceding three fouls and winning four, and not backing down when a flailing Sergio Ramos arm caught him in the face.
Messi was incensed with Ramos as the half-time whistle sounded, and the confrontation saw both captains butt heads as Suarez failed to hold his teammate back.
Ramos later claimed he did not mean to catch Messi, whom he said “took it badly”, while Gerard Pique claimed Messi was left with blood in his mouth after the act of “aggression”.
Intentional or not, and regardless of whether Messi overreacted, the fact he stood up to Ramos proved to be a pivotal moment of the match
Barcelona raised their intensity and aggression in the second half to continue to shut out Real. Clement Lenglet was perhaps lucky to escape with just a yellow for an elbow on Ramos, but this clear show of payback was a sign the Barca players were all fighting for and by their captain’s side.
In beating Real, Barca became the first side to win three consecutive games at the Bernabeu, while individually, Messi bounced back supremely. As Valverde put it, it was an other-worldly performance.
"He is an extra-terrestrial in a way, because every time he takes the ball something extraordinary happens,” said the Barcelona boss.
With a healthy lead in La Liga and a Copa del Rey final to look forward to, Barca will look to manage their league advantage as they concentrate on progressing further in the Champions League.
They host Lyon in the last-16 second leg next Wednesday, with the score at 0-0, and they will be favourites to progress to the last eight.
The prospect of another treble is not out of the question, but they will need the stars to align as they did in 2014-15. And as ever, they will need Messi to be at the centre of everything.