Predictions for Lionel Messi During Real Madrid vs. Barcelona

Rob BlanchetteFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

VALLADOLID, SPAIN - MARCH 08:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the La Liga match between Real Valladolid CF and FC Barcelona at Estadio Nuevo Jose Zorillo on March 8, 2014 in Valladolid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

There are no other superlatives left to use when describing the celestial talents of Barcelona's Lionel Messi.

The four-time Ballon d'Or winner will be remembered in the same breath as Diego Maradona and Pele when his career is over, being the creative force behind probably the greatest club side ever to play the beautiful game. 

Messi is still the heartbeat of Barca, and it is his energy and continuing high standards that keep the team from the Nou Camp competing for honours. 

This Sunday sees the Catalan giant face their most hated of enemies, the royal club of Spain, from the capital of Madrid.

Messi and his Barcelona teammates travel to the Santiago Bernabeu knowing a defeat to Real Madrid will all but extinguish their La Liga title challenge this season.

Barca sit four points behind Madrid in third place, per Sky Sports, and could also fall further behind Atletico Madrid should they be beaten.

Messi, now 26 years old, has had an average season, compared to his previous efforts. But his record is still as good as anyone in European football.

His 26 appearances in La Liga and the Champions League combined have produced 26 goals and nine assists, per WhoScored, proving he is still very much dining at the top table of world's superstar footballers. 


The Pressure to Improve

VALLADOLID, SPAIN - MARCH 08:  Lionel Messi (L) of FC Barcelona lines up a free kick with Xavi Hernandez during the La Liga match between Real Valladolid CF and FC Barcelona at estadio Nuevo Jose Zorillo on March 8, 2014 in Valladolid, Spain.  (Photo by D
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Messi's record this season is a brilliant one, but a dip in form from Barcelona, coupled with some outstanding performances from Cristiano Ronaldo and Madrid, have left a perception that the Argentina international has somehow underperformed. 

This is nowhere near the whole truth, but it is fair to say that he has not hit the heady heights of previous campaigns, and neither has his club as a collective.

Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas also took a gentle sideswipe at Messi recently, saying he found it more difficult playing against Samuel Eto'o in El Clasico matches.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

He told Marca: "I've always struggled more against him [Eto'o]. Everybody knows that Messi is a great player; Samu is as well, but he's different. Eto'o had figured out how to play against us, he was always dangerous and scored goals."

With the arrival of Neymar at Barcelona, there is a new-found pressure on Messi to perform, and this El Clasico will be a poignant test for the little genius.

A Messi-led win would see his stock rocket once again, and the detractors would be forced to eat humble pie. 

But Madrid will ask specific questions of Messi and Barca on Sunday night, and we will see if both parties currently have the same desire as Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and the Galacticos' cast of supporting talent.


Destroying Madrid with Movement

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 07:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona scores his team's first goal past Iker Casillas of Real Madrid CF during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Mdrid CF at Camp Nou on October 7, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by D
David Ramos/Getty Images

Messi's huge strength has always been his ability to ghost away from his marker but then explode into life in the final third.

It is his trademark and something that has always come naturally to the player.

His ability to find space, primarily from the right side, has given him the chance for many years to collect the ball and run at defenders, usually ending in a beautiful goal or great technical piece of play.

Messi's heatmap against Madrid last October shows how dangerous his position-taking is:

He is able to tread the touchline as a conventional wide midfielder would, but he is so much more than just that. His presence is felt right across the pitch as he finds space in front of the Madrid defence, making him impossible to pick up.

Messi knows this is his primary weapon, as do Barcelona's coaching staff. He needs this kind of freedom in order to create and to uphold the amazing amount of possession that the Catalan team are so used to having during any football match.

On Sunday, Messi will need to be more than just at his best. He currently is still showing that he is a phenomenal talent but maybe without the true potency that won him the Ballon d'Or four times in a row.

If Messi does not turn on the style, it could potentially be the end of Barcelona's domestic title concerns. He has to match the brilliance currently being shown by Ronaldo and completely upstage his old sparring partner. 

One thing is certain: Messi still has the ability to win a match on his own. El Clasico on Sunday could turn out to be one of his greatest nights in a Barcelona shirt, as the phoenix rises from the flames.