A fair portion of the soccer world holds Lionel Messi to stratospheric standards.
Following on from the midweek UEFA Champions League matches, the Barcelona man’s performance in the 0-0 draw against Juventus was criticized in some quarters. He missed a fine chance in the first period, hooked over another in the second and, to cap off a frustrating night, fell flush on his face after a challenge with Miralem Pjanic.
Of course, a different light was shed on Messi’s display after Cristiano Ronaldo, with whom he’s been perennially compared to throughout his career, netted a hat-trick to help Real Madrid eventually overcome Bayern Munich in controversial circumstances.
With Sunday’s showdown between the two teams at the Santiago Bernabeu looming large, the focus will be on this pairing again. Naturally.
But it feels like a bigger game for Barcelona. The Blaugrana are three points behind their longstanding rivals, having played a game more in the race for the La Liga title. After their elimination to Juventus on Wednesday, they need a big display.
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It’s a massive game for Messi too. And that’s not say he hasn’t been performing this term, because he has been sublime. But Barcelona need him at the absolute peak of his powers in a fixture he hasn’t flourished in recently.
Of course, Messi’s influences on matches transcends his goalscoring, with the great man becoming more and more of a creative presence as he moves forward in his career. Yet his last goals in this fixture came in 2014, when a hat-trick at the Santiago Bernabeu earned Barcelona a thrilling 4-3 win.
Granted, it’s only six matches ago. But based on the high standards Messi sets, it’s a paltry return. And thinking back through those meetings, the Argentina international has struggled to exert quite the same influence on these enormous occasions as he has done previously; with a haul of 23, no player has more Clásico goals than Messi.
With no Neymar and a team low on confidence and cohesion, manager Luis Enrique will want to see Messi stamp his authority here. Something he has been doing for so much of the La Liga season.
Indeed, while Barcelona have not performed to the levels they have shown they’re capable of under Enrique, Messi has been mesmeric in 2016-17. In the 3-2 win over Real Sociedad last weekend, he singlehandedly hauled the Blaugrana over the line with one of the standout individual performances anywhere in the world this season. It’s a trick that’s been repeated.
In terms of the bald statistics, Messi’s La Liga return of 29 goals and eight assists from 28 appearances is remarkable and unmatched in Spain’s top flight.
And that is truly remarkable, because at times this season the diminutive genius has fulfilled a variety of roles, sometimes within the same game. Messi can be the man starting attacking from deep, knitting play together in the final third, committing full-backs in wide positions and is often in the area to finish chances.
So while he will be scrutinized severely before and after Sunday’s Clásico, he needs more assistance from those around him too.
He’s not playing under a hopeless manager and a team packed full of no-marks, after all. Enrique has proven himself a capable tactician, while in men like Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, Messi has a clutch of world-class team-mates alongside him.
It’s in games like Sunday’s when those sorts of players need to stand up as a collective. Yet it’s not something we’ve seen frequently from them at times this term, especially away from home, having lost four of their last five.
Those men will look to Messi in this fixture and that’s only natural, as he’s forged an indisputable reputation as the Blaugrana’s talisman. For the 29-year-old to flourish, though, they all need to improve.
Suarez, who has troubled Madrid in the past, must rediscover his golden touch after no goals in his last four. Iniesta and Busquets must manage a midfield that has been skewed for long spells this season. Meanwhile, Pique, who relishes the partizan atmosphere in the capital, must marshal the defensive setup astutely.
If all those things fall into place then Barcelona will thrive on the day and are capable of winning this one, even without Neymar. Because Messi will most likely thrive then too.
Although he’s been below par in recent Clásico showings, this season he’s set stratospheric standards, often without sufficient assistance from those around him.
Should Barca perform well and Messi fails to add the gloss, then point the finger at him in the post-game analysis. But if standards are lifted elsewhere, their No. 10 will go up a gear too, as he’s proven so frequently throughout his career. With their La Liga title hopes hanging by a thread, the Blaugrana need him to.
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