Still the true Messiah
To borrow a Gary Neville image, Lionel Messi really does look as if he is being controlled by a 10-year-old on his PlayStation, but in the best way possible. On these neon nights in Spain you observe the splendour of Messi's talent and the shadow he casts even over Cristiano Ronaldo.
For anyone under 30 most football deities are old TV footage: Puskas, Di Stefano, Pele, Best and Cruyff. Only with Diego Maradona does greatness shade into today's world and from there Zinedine Zidane and the original (Brazilian) Ronaldo are its most eminent representatives.
Then along comes Messi, the low-slung, iron-shinned, soft-footed genius who shines brightest in the hardest games of all. There was no 14th goal in 16 Clasicos for Messi in Barcelona's 3-1 victory on an icy Saturday night at the Bernabeu but that hardly mattered. He rendered his aesthetic clash with Ronaldo a non-event and played in a realm of brilliance way beyond Madrid's reach.
Good players hope to change games. Great players decide to. So it was that Messi gathered the ball with 29 minutes on the clock and scurried away from Lassana Diarra to deliver a perfect pass for Alexis Sanchez to equalise with an angled drive that cancelled out Karim Benzema's strike for Madrid after 23 seconds: the fastest in a Clasico.
There were many measures of Barcelona's supremacy. One was the willingness of their goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, to carry on passing from his penalty box after a succession of clangers, the first of which led to Benzema's goal. Another was the gamble of playing three at the back for 80 minutes.
"Our philosophy is to be courageous," boasted Xavi Hernandez, their brilliant playmaker. "You can't win at the Bernabeu without this."
The story of the game is that Real opened the gates to the enemy with 15 consecutive wins carved on their tomahawk and morale sky-high. They even left the grass longer than last season, when they tried to make Messi lose himself in a meadow. Referees were no longer being hounded so mercilessly and fewer fights were being picked or eyes being poked. They led La Liga by three points with a game in hand.
All very nice, until you face the golden trident of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta: surely the greatest attacking midfield combination of modern times. If you drew up a Fifa Ballon d'Or shortlist on Clasicos alone, Messi, Iniesta and Xavi would always be 1-2-3.
In this one -- the seventh of 2011 -- Ronaldo was a spectre of the bustling bully who had scored 20 times in 18 games and is as crucial to Madrid in front of goal as Messi is for Barcelona. This night will haunt the £80m man. Five minutes before Sanchez scored, Benzema set up Madeira's finest export with a perfect cutback which Ronaldo skewed into the stand. After the interval he met a sweet cross from the left with the wrong part of his head and skulled it wide.
While Ronaldo toiled, Barcelona's magic midfield were snuffing out the light of hope for the white enemy. Good players report a terrible cost to the ego from having to chase Xavi, Messi and Iniesta around. They give you a taste of the ball, then make it disappear. This is tiring, and hurtful to the spirit. It is not how top players are meant to spend their days. And eventually, it tells.
Barcelona's second goal after 47 minutes was a lucky dip. Xavi's speculative shot from outside the box glanced off Marcelo, hit a post and bobbled in.
There was no bemoaning their third. Dani Alves broke down the right and swung a cross to Iker Casillas' far post, where Cesc Fabregas stooped to provide the header. Fabregas's move back home has been a success.
To declare the World Player of the Year debate over on the back of one bad night for Ronaldo would be shallow and insulting. But Madrid's best cannot live with Messi's record in these seismic cultural collisions. Even Madrid's supporters acknowledged the gulf, whistling their main gladiator on his own stage.
In 16 Clasicos Messi is credited with involvement in 21 goals (13 scored, and eight assists). On a night described by Xavi as "a turning point," his Argentine accomplice rode meaty tackles, orchestrated from the No 10 position, broke wide and even chased Angel Di Maria 50 yards to hook the ball back. Booked for dissent, he might have been sent off for a heavy foul on Xabi Alonso, but we were spared that spectacle-wrecking flash of red.
This is not a master of one or two arts but a landlord of the whole pitch, the whole game. To combine lethal finishing with such deftness of passing and spatial awareness amounts to cruelty against the rest of his profession.
Real Madrid could yet lose both league games to Barcelona but still regain the championship. With their quicker counter-attacking style and deep squad they will go on shredding most domestic opposition. An imminent distraction for Barcelona, they will hope, is this month's Club World Cup in Japan.
For half an hour Jose Mourinho must have felt he had turned the tide against these infernal Catalan invaders, with their fat artistic manifesto. Mourinho is still the only manager to have found an answer to tiki-taka, at Inter Milan in a Champions League semi-final, but here in Spain a formula eludes him. He has tried brutishness, counter-attacking and pressing and none of it works.
"We live around the ball," said Pep Guardiola, the Barca coach. "Eight of these players today were born in the club and we're very proud." A mistranslation, one hopes. In Madrid no one wants to picture a maternity ward in Catalonia rolling out another Xavi or Iniesta.
"They have the ball, they pass the ball, they have the ball, they pass the ball, they have the ball, they pass the ball," Guardiola explained, making it sound like a nursery rhyme. But there was no triumphalism: "I don't think it will affect Real Madrid. They've been in very good form and they'll get back on their feet."
Mourinho's only moan was that his players stood off Messi and Sanchez for Barcelona's first goal. The cause, he claimed, was a fear of red cards. "That shouldn't happen if you have enough mental aggression," he said of the 50-50 challenges his players lost for the Sanchez goal. "That's a key moment I would pick out."
Not that Madrid's players held back. Pepe, Diarra and Alonso all resorted to roughhouse interventions. Against Messi it never works. He was hacked and smacked a lot in front of 85,000 spectators but never exaggerated the impact of a tackle or went down in anticipation of a challenge. So gifted is he that to be on the floor without good reason must feel like a crime against his own talent, so he stays upright wherever possible. The full range of his destructive capabilities is apparent to him now.
Many of us hold a special place in the affections for Zidane, but Messi's luminous ability to run with the ball at such improbable speed and to wreck a defence with a pass from the trequartista position is thrilling to the soul. You leave the cauldron captivated and faintly troubled by the thought that one day time will rob us of the opportunity to see him grace games of such intensity with his virtuosity. Watch him every time you can. (© Daily Telegraph, London)