This feature is part of Virtuoso
As we look towards the next El Clásico tussle between Barcelona and Real Madrid, Lionel Messi approaches it as captain of the Blaugrana. The Argentine has a long and storied history in the fixture, and, frankly, has become the bane of Real Madrid in almost every game since his one-man show back in March 2007. He is, by a distance, the top scorer with 26 goals. Placing that record in perspective, his nearest challengers, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Cristiano Ronaldo will stay on 18 goals. Even the great Raúl managed just 15 against Los Blancos’ fiercest rivals.
To suggest that Messi’s hold over Real is based purely on his goal-scoring contributions would be folly, however. It has been 14 years since he was first named in a Barcelona side for an El Clásico fixture, but in November 2004 he was an unused substitute. In 2005, when Ronaldinho was in his pomp and received a standing ovation at the Santiago Bernabéu, it’s often forgotten that Messi was alongside him and Samuel Eto’o, though perhaps in a little more discreet role. He was on the losing side when Barça went to the Spanish capital in October 2006, too, but it was to be in the reverse fixture, at the Camp Nou on 10 March 2007, when he truly came of age.
By that stage, though still just 19 years old, Messi had most of Europe in his thrall. Far from the finished article, his skillset was bewitching enough for everyone to understand that someone special was developing before their eyes. On a balmy night in Barcelona, 98,000 souls packed into Barca’s cavernous amphitheatre.
Real came into the match in fourth place – they’d go on to win the LaLiga title on the head to head rule over Barça – whilst the Catalans were in second behind Sevilla. Despite the lack of a roof over three-quarters of the stadium, the cacophony of noise was deafening. The Barça hymn ‘Tot el Camp’ was heartily observed before the battle commenced at 10pm local time.
With the fervent home support expecting all three points, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s stroked opener after just five minutes silenced them, albeit temporarily. It was the Dutchman’s 13th of an impressive season and gave the visitors the foothold they needed. It was, for all intents and purposes, a game that Real Madrid couldn’t lose.
Despite taking the initiative, however, it was Barcelona that settled the quicker thereafter, and Eto’o had a presentable chance saved, with Iker Casillas alive to the possibilities. A subtle build up from the hosts on 11 minutes ended with a quick exchange of passes between Ronaldinho, Deco and Eto’o. With seven Real players all within five yards of the ball as the latter released it, they’d inexplicably left Messi completely isolated on the right side. With one touch to set himself, the number 19 slipped it past an on-rushing Casillas. Cue pandemonium in the stands.
No sooner had the chaos subsided it was reignited for a wholly different reason, referee Undiano Mallenco awarding Real a penalty just two minutes later, after Guti was fouled inside the box. Van Nistelrooy had already missed three spot-kicks during the season but confidently strode up from 12 yards to send Victor Valdés the wrong way.
If Real felt they were in the ascendency, they couldn’t have been more wrong as Barça pressed forward at every opportunity. Messi was at the heart of almost every attacking move, and a couple of nutmegs brought the culés to their feet and saw the ‘olés’ ring out around the stadium. Showboating? Almost certainly. But the substance to back it up came before the half hour.
Ronaldinho and Eto’o were causing panic down the left side, and the Brazilian managed to sneak a shot on target after a swift one-two with the Cameroon international. Showing an appreciation of space that we have come to understand is the norm for Messi, the 19-year-old was, again, in oceans of space, only this time deep inside Real’s penalty area. As Casillas parried, the ball fell kindly to Messi by now standing just right and forward of the penalty spot. The keeper was swiftly up and, along with Sergio Ramos, Guti and another defender, moved to cover the gaping goal. A ferocious half-volley from Messi eluded them all and almost took the roof off of the net. Van Nistelrooy 2, Messi 2.
A first-half hat-trick was almost completed when Xavi opened up the visiting defence again, but on that occasion Messi could only find the side netting. The Catalans poured forward with the Argentine at the hub of everything good that they were doing. Olegeur’s second yellow for a foul on Fernando Gago, right on half-time, handed the initiative to Real once more, though it would take almost half an hour into the second half for them to make the extra man count. A wonderfully delivered free-kick from Guti found Ramos, whose back-header went in off of the crossbar on 73. Surely there was no way back now?
As with all good ‘classics,’ wherever they may be played, high drama at its climax is chiefly what remains in the memory, refusing to be forgotten, and the clock had already ticked into time added on when Messi wrote his name into El Clásico folklore. Ronaldinho had picked up the ball out on the left and there looked to be little danger as he sauntered in-field. His arrowed pass fell at Messi’s feet but with four defenders in close proximity, there was still little for Real to concern themselves with. One touch took all four out of the game and Messi was able to accelerate into space. Quickly within shooting range, and with Ramos belatedly sliding in, he fired an unstoppable drive back across Casillas and into the net.
His first career hat-trick had doubled his tally for the season and created headlines worldwide. Lionel Messi had truly arrived. It was a virtuoso performance, worthy of standing alone. As we know now, it was simply the first of many.
By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp