Lionel Messi’s first half hour in El Clasico was one he won’t care to remember. It wasn’t even going that great heading into halftime. He had a black eye from a previous match, as did Barcelona’s season having won just one of its previous four matches, including a Champions League elimination at the hands of Juventus. And he got roughed up once the game started.
Barca was three points back of Real Madrid, who had a game in hand entering the match. A loss in Madrid would have seen the hosts with one hand already on this season’s trophy. The La Liga crown is the one remaining trophy in play that Barca wants more than anything. But Messi didn’t allow the capital club to secure a result they seemingly had in hand in the game’s final seconds. He broke their hearts instead.
Messi dug deep and produced a performance we will never forget, scoring two goals, including the winner at the death. With no momentum and one of their best players (Neymar) sidelined due to suspension, Messi silenced the Bernabeu as he has done on many occasions. He pulled off the soccer equivalent of buying a box of kosher salt and dropping it into the flesh wound left by the dagger of that last goal.
And it all came after Messi was was given a big hit on the mouth. He took an elbow to the face from Marcelo that left him bloodied , and it continued all night long. Sergio Ramos almost took his legs off with a dangerous challenge in the second half that saw the defender pick up a red card. It just never came easy for Messi, and it proved just how bad Real Madrid wanted to stop him.
They had no chance, with Messi’s magical goal coming in the 92nd minute:
Watch that again, because he played it to perfection. When Sergi Roberto passed the halfway line, Messi was on the right flank looking for the ball, seeing that it was headed left as the numbers were there.
Messi then saw Andres Iniesta’s overlapping run, knowing a diagonal ball would be the best option here. And he slowed down while Real Madrid’s defenders raced back.
And he did exactly what he was supposed to — find the gap of space for a diagonal ball to fire on frame, similar to what Paulo Dybala did to Barca just under two weeks ago.
And he finished it gloriously, scoring the biggest goal in the biggest game in the world. That effort for 90 minutes was more than greatness, it was out of this world. And that moment at the end was the stuff of legends.
There’s the argument against Messi that he isn’t the best now and he can’t be the greatest ever if he doesn’t win something with his national team. Some believe he is no Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed two sitters and various quality chances in this one. Some say he is no Pele, no Diego Maradona until he wins with Argentina — a bogus take given how Argentina has been led by incompetent directors who pick incompetent coaches, who pick players that shouldn’t even be considered for the squad, let alone picked. I’m looking at you, Martin Demichelis, Hugo Campagnaro, Fernando Gago, old Maxi Rodriguez and Ricky Alvarez.
What Messi did is something no other player in the world can do — make knees buckle, jaws drop and hearts skip a beat with showings that constantly make you question whether he is human or not. He was battered, but his will to win and be the greatest once again surpassed everything else. It isn’t going to always happen, but more often than not Messi leaves us dumbfounded as to how he does what he does.
We just may have to wait until Messi’s career is over to judge whether or not he is the greatest of all time. He’s well on his way. But in the meantime, he’s the world’s best by a country mile. And performances like Sunday are why.