Lionel Messi Magic Papers over Barcelona Cracks in Heart-Stopping Clasico

Guillem BalagueFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

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For anyone who ever doubted it, the message following a heart-stopping Clasico is clear: Lionel Messi is back.

Another hat-trick, albeit with two of the three goals coming from the spot, and an assist mean that the mercurial Argentina international has now scored no fewer than 15 times in the last nine games.

Fundamentally, and yet again, he was the difference between the two sides in a strange match. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game where the domination of play and the goals scored led such separate lives. A team conceded whenever it seemed to be in charge, but scored when it was severely under the cosh. 

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

What it has done, of course, is set up what should be a thrilling climax to this season’s La Liga.

Barcelona’s victory over Real has left Atletico top of the table with a better head-to-head record than their neighbours.

You know the footballing world has gone mad when half of Madrid wildly celebrates a Barcelona victory.

Whisper it, but the fact is if Atletico win their remaining fixtures, they will be champions.

In truth, however, I don’t really understand how Real managed to lose this game. As great an outcome as it is for Tata Martino, the result merely papers over the cracks of more poor decision-making by the Blaugrana coach.

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 23: Gerardo Martino, coach of Barcelona looks on during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at the Bernabeu on March 23, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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Neymar’s presence on the pitch did not work in any way. He was not good with the ball, coming inside far too often and not releasing the ball quickly enough. However, that’s only the half of it.

Where he really let the side down was with his lack of positional discipline, moving from the wing and not tracking back. As a result, when Barca lost the ball in that area, it created havoc.

Twice, with Neymar having gone AWOL, Angel di Maria created chances that were gobbled up by Karim Benzema. Had the Frenchman really turned up with his shooting boots, the match wouldn't have been a contest by halftime.

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With neither Javier Mascherano nor Dani Alves defending well on that side of the pitch against a rampant Marcelo and Di Mariaand Neymar nowhere to be seenBarcelona’s defensive frailties were there for all to see.

But once again, we have to say: cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

The Barcelona star's pinpoint pass put in Andres Iniesta for the game’s opener.

Then, a very atypical Messi effort made sure his side went in all square at the interval before he clinched the win with two unstoppable spot-kicksthe first to cancel out Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty, the second to secure the points.

And what of Real Madrid?

We saw only flashes of Gareth Bale, mainly because he had to run at Barcelona from very deep positions. Even though the home side started by defending high up the pitch, little by little they began to drop deeper despite the constant urging of Carlo Ancelotti and captain Sergio Ramos to push up.

MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 23:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid takes on Jordi Alba of Barcelona during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona at the Bernabeu on March 23, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

With that said, they counter-attacked well with Di Maria running riot for just over an hour, as he created chance after chance for Benzema.

The long-overdue substitution of Neymar for Pedro in the 68th minute put a stop to that, but Madrid didn’t do a lot wrong.

However, like so many in the past, and almost certainly more in the future, they just couldn’t deal with those moments of Messi magic.

"This team always rises to the big occasions," Messi said, according to Inside La Liga. "We like playing in these kinds of games, but we have to keep going. La Liga is very tough and there aren’t many games left. We can’t afford to fail."

Fresh from their triumph, Barcelona might feel that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of their death have been an exaggeration and this is not the end of an era.

The truth, however, is that there are a lot of weaknesses in this Barcelona side that will probably be punished—especially in the latter stages of the Champions League. This is a side that does not defend as it did in the past.