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Santiago Bernabeu: Lionel Messi’s conquered ground

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Photo via Imago

With the second edition of El Clásico in the 2020/21 season less than 72 hours away, the footballing world is once more about to come to a standstill. Its master, a certain Lionel Andrés Messi, has ripped almost all the records pertaining to this tie to shreds. The Argentine maestro holds the record for the most goals as well as assists for any player against Los Blancos and will seek to add to this tally once Barcelona sets foot in Real Madrid’s Alfredo Di Stefano stadium.

Being a Barça player, every encounter against the eternal rival will be a special one. With the Clásico being played away from the ever-iconic Santiago Bernabéu due to the reconstructing taking place, we here at Barca Universal thought to re-live three of the 6-time Ballon D’or winner’s most memorable games in the Spanish Capital. He is, after all, the individual with the most goals for any player in the Clásico, and with goals come memories that will be indelibly etched in the history books for aeons to come.

3. Pep Guardiola’s False 9
Real Madrid 2-6 Barcelona | 2008/09

“Lionel Messi takes his time, and walks it in. Start shining the trophy now, the league may well be Barcelona’s.”

The Catalans’ 2-6 victory over Real Madrid is just one among a host of iconic performances that the Merengues were unfortunate enough to bear witness to in their own backyard. This humiliation in particular, against their biggest rivals, is one that the Madrid faithful will never truly scrape from their minds, not only for their sheer inferiority to Barcelona but the consequences that Pep Guardiola’s tactics would have on their ultimate enemy.

The bald genius, as some call him, gave new life to Messi, and such was his aptitude in this role that he continues to this day to terrorise defences in precisely the same way. Sitting between strikers Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry, the Argentine was tasked with acting as a false 9 in such a way that he would attract defenders to himself and punish his hosts for the slightest of lapses in concentration.

Putting theory into practice, La Pulga’s first contribution of the night came in precisely this manner. He lured a familiar foe in Madrid captain Sergio Ramos out of his den by occupying Zone 14, played a delicate chip into Henry who darted into the vacated space, and, cool as you like, he curved the ball past Iker Casillas to equalise the score for the Garnet and Blue after Gonzalo Higuain helped Madrid take the lead.

Lionel Messi at the forefront of destruction. (Photo via Imago)

Bewildered, and with their lead lost, Real Madrid’s incapacity to handle the little man meant that this was just the beginning of possibly their worst nightmare. Carlos Puyol helped Barça take the lead just two minutes after this, and just after the hour mark, Messi would add further gloss to the scoreline.

The Catalans’ asphyxiating press proved too much for their Madrid counterparts to contend with, and it was in precisely this manner that they got their third. Xavi Hernández dispossessed Lassana Diarra following a pass from Casillas, and laid the ball on a plate for the Barça number 10. With acres of space and an infinite amount of time to think, he went one on one with San Iker, and with ice in his veins, placed the ball into the bottom corner of the net to essentially expel all hope Los Merengues had of mounting a comeback.

Even with a quarter of the game left to play, Messi was far from done with his torture of Madrid. Still, in his free role as a false 9, the Argentine drew left-back Gabriel Heinze towards him, released the ball to Xavi and darted into the newly vacated space. Casillas had the chance to make amends for having conceded the early goal, but Messi had other ideas. He faked one shot, and with the Madrid captain’s positioning now off, the Argentine took full advantage, slotting the ball past the Spaniard at the near post to record his 22nd goal of the season, as well as seal the Manita for his side.

Far from finished with his systematic dismantling of Madrid, he would play a massive role in creating the sixth and final goal for three Blaugrana. He lacerated the Madrid backline with a through ball to Samuel Eto’o down the wing. He then delivered a ball to Gérard Piqué, who slotted the ball past his Spanish comrade to record the sixth and final goal for Barcelona.

It was by some accounts his individual best performance against Madrid, but he would have another equally brilliant moment just two years later against his eternal rivals.

2. The best on the planet
Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona | 2010/11

“Away from two, three, four… Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. How good is he!”

The 2010/11 campaign saw Pep Guardiola mould what is largely considered to be the best football team ever to have graced the earth. Their football was as enthralling as it was captivating; their passing as exquisite as it was crisp; their pressing as coordinated as it was choking; and to cap it all off, they had a version of Messi as majestic as he was deadly.

In stark contrast to the 5-0 annihilation and mesmeric football on display in the Nou Camp following the Catalan elections the year prior, this match was marked with a host of needless fouls brought about by the ruthless aggression of José Mourinho’s forces. They were out to avoid, at all costs, the sort of drubbing they had faced just the year prior, as well as end their decade long quest for a European crown. Lionel Messi had other ideas in store for them.

Bombarded by the ludicrous foul play by Sergio Ramos and Álvaro Arbeloa, the Argentine endured one of his most gruesome matches against the old enemy. Crafty as he is, he still ran circles around the Madrid defence whenever the opportunity presented itself, but such was the marking against him that he would always meet around five or six players laying in wait for him.

The match seemed closer to a draw than it was anything else, as Barça were incapable of finding their way through the white wall of Madrid.

Madrid maintaining social distancing from Messi. (Photo via Imago)

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and for the Garnet and Blue, Lionel Messi was that man. From Barcelona’s right flank, Ibrahim Affelay skipped past Marcelo Vieira with relative ease, and once at the byline, he played a sumptuous low cross into Messi’s path. Arbeloa failed to make any contact, and ready to pounce on the perfectly weighted ball was the bane of their existence, in the form of a little man with a 10 on the back of his shirt. He tapped the ball home, through Iker Casillas’ legs and into the back of the net to get that all so crucial away goal.

Real Madrid were in trouble. Their game plan might have involved shutting Barça out for the most time they possibly could, and perhaps seek an away draw in the Nou Camp to get to the final in Wembley. Disgruntled, and incapable of processing what had just happened, the capital club began leaving enormous spaces, the sort that Messi lives for.

With three minutes left to play, the then two-time Ballon D’or winner played a quick one-two with Sergio Busquets near the halfway line. Even with a sea of white right before his eyes, the Argentine didn’t break a sweat. He gracefully weaved his way past four Madrid players, and one on one with San Iker, he slotted the ball home with his right foot to seal the victory. No one could have foreseen this happening. Well, no one but that little magician in Garnet and Blue.

Even though Rob Palmer said it in a different game, Harry Houdini had nothing on Messi’s magic, and that goal was evidence of that. He had the audacity to craft such a move out of relatively nothing, in a champions league semifinal, and against his arch-rivals no less. Simply Messi.

1. It isn’t over until he says it is
Real Madrid 2-3 Barcelona | 2016/17

“Lionel Messi does it again he’s superhuman! Lionel Messi has just, exploded La Liga into life.”

On a run of six consecutive games without either a goal in all competitions against Real Madrid, doubts were raised over just how much Lionel Messi could do in this edition of the Clásico, especially bearing in mind the level of the version of the hosts he was up against. Los Blancos were, by many accounts, Europe’s best team that year. Fresh from a rather controversial 4-2 thumping of Bayern München in the Champions League, confidence was high in the Madrid camp, and with reason.

Barcelona needed to win to keep their La Liga title hopes alive and do so by any means necessary, and win they did, in quite emphatic fashion too.

Much like in 2011, Messi would be the unfortunate victim of a host of fouls from Los Blancos. Casemiro was hovering near Messi, and had already attempted two-card worthy challenges on the Argentine, only receiving one for taking him down near the centre circle. Not too long after, Marcelo Vieira elbowed him right in his mouth, somehow avoiding a red card for what seemed a deliberate offence from the Brazilian.

Los Merengues triggered him one time too many, and with the lion now awoken and infuriated by the needless assaults on him, he went on his hunt for goals. Subsequent to an extensively long possession phase by the Catalans, Ivan Rakitić, from the right halfspace, found La Pulga briskly making a run towards him. With one touch, he put his opponents to a standstill, the second and with their motion against them, he rid himself of all Madrid’s defenders, and with his third, he calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net past a helpless Keylor Navas.

With time going by, hope quickly faded away. Even without Sergio Ramos in defence following his crude two-footed challenge on Messi himself, all of Barça’s efforts on goal were met by save after save from the Costa Rican goalkeeper. To make matters worse, just four minutes from time, substitute James Rodriguez scored the equaliser to kill off the Blaugranas’ spirits — or so he thought.

With twenty seconds left to play, the Garnet and Blue showed their mental fortitude in its finest form. Sergi Roberto skipped past two Madrid defenders and made a darting run into the central midfield. He then laid the ball off to André Gomes, who immediately played the ball into Jordi Alba’s path. The Spaniard instinctively played the cutback to Messi, and for that one second, time stood still.

Dani Carvajal, noticing his error, ran right towards him. Keylor Navas, who by then had already produced at least ten saves, was perfectly positioned on the right. In front of him were two of his own teammates. Everything about this shot should have made it impossible to go in, but with this little man, is impossible even a word? On his left foot, and with 80,000 Madridistas whistling him, the 6-time Ballon D’or winner curled the ball into the back of the net, making it 2-3 in the final quarter of a minute and breaking the hearts of all Merengues before him.

What followed was easily the coldest celebration of all time. In front of hoards of Madridistas and a sea of white, Messi took his shirt off, reminding them who ran the place. It was the ultimate way to score his 500th goal for his beloved club, and in such a way that not a single Madridista will ever forget. All eleven players from the other aisle either fell to their knees in awe or lamented in bitter frustration. They had just been crushed, and crudely so, by a man they once so desperately wanted and could never have.

Iconic. (Photo via Imago)

The question remains, what sort of a mark will Lionel Messi leave on the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium? Well, in due time, in perhaps his final Clásico, with the league on the line, we’ll find out.

The beautiful game brings to all who enjoy it a plethora of emotions and my way of giving back to it is through my writing. I am here not only to share my insight on the club I hold closest to my heart but also to gain knowledge from my fellow writers.