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article imageMarvelous Messi's influential Clasico display opens up title race

By Tyrrell Meertins     Mar 23, 2014 in Sports
Lionel Messi never shies away from the big occasion. Once again, the Argentine was the catalyst behind Barcelona’s key victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, which puts Gerardo Martino’s men within one point of Atletico and Real Madrid.
Messi didn’t flinch, nor did he crumble under pressure when his side fell behind twice. The 26-year-old took it upon himself to make the difference and display why he’s the best player in the world, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo behind in the dust. In fairness, Ronaldo wasn’t the only star performer to enjoy a poor night, as Neymar and Gareth Bale were also peripheral figures.
Wherever Messi goes, records shatter. Along with becoming the first Barcelona player to record a hat-trick at the Bernabeu, Messi now holds the Clasico record for the most goals and assists.
This Barcelona side is inferior to the team led by Pep Guardiola, but Messi has often made the difference when the reigning La Liga champions have encountered top-class opposition. A loss would all but end Barca’s title hopes, but once again, it was their majestic no.10 that single-handedly re-opened the title race in Spain.
The main issue with Carlo Ancelotti’s approach was the space in midfield. While Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 has proved successful against inferior sides this season, Madrid have failed to replicate their form against the better sides in Spain. Within the opening seven minutes Messi created two opportunities. A well-weighed ball into Neymar saw the Brazilian drag his shot straight at Diego Lopez. Afterwards he drifted into space between the lines to receive a pass, and swiftly found Andres Iniesta free on the left, who expertly fired his shot past Lopez.
It was evident that Madrid’s system was unsuccessful from a defensive perspective, but Ancelotti watched on. Messi was again at the heart of Barca’s attack, this time receiving an immaculate defence-splitting pass from Cesc Fabregas, but the Argentine dynamo shockingly missed the net by some distance. Subsequently, Barca’s no.10 received a pass from Sergio Busquets in a pocket of space, and once again found Neymar behind Madrid’s defence –– this time Pepe blocked the Brazilian’s attempt.
Madrid teetered, but their productivity on the opposing end exceeded their frailties at the back. Ancelotti’s side pressed Barcelona when they attempted to play out the back –– which created a few chances –– but Martino’s men were vulnerable against Madrid’s runs from midfield. Gareth Bale and Angel Di Maria evaded challenges with their powerful runs from midfield, thus creating two chances for Karim Benzema, but the Frenchman wasted both opportunities.
As good as Messi was, his compatriot was equally as impressive in the opening half, covering every blade of grass and creating both Benzema goals. However, as the match wore on Di Maria’s energy levels decreased, and Messi regained his role as the architect of the match.
The slight modifications in Martino’s system decreases Messi’s influence on Barca’s attack in comparison to the Guardiola era, and at times he spent long periods of the match without being involved in the play. Yet, with the first half coming to a conclusion, the Argentine struck again. Messi’s tenacity saw him bounce off Ramos after playing a one-two with Fabregas –– in which he played Neymar free in the box –– and struck a loose ball past Lopez at the near post to level the score line.
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty controversy, and Madrid’s improved play at the start of the second half, it was Messi who shifted the balance of the match. The Argentine’s sublime jaw-dropping ball mesmerized Madrid’s defence and found Neymar. Sergio Ramos’ recovery run led to the Spaniard clipping the Brazilian in the box, thus meriting a penalty shot and the Spaniard’s dismissal. Messi stepped to the spot and emphatically fired his effort past Lopez.
“It's true that Messi scored three goals, but any mistakes against a player of his quality will always hurt you,” Ancelotti said.
Madrid suddenly retreated deep into their third in a 4-4-1 shape, but minimal pressure on the ball led to Barcelona’s dominance. The introduction of Alexis Sanchez and Pedro stretched the game, and Messi’s lay-off pass to Dani Alves saw the Brazilian drive a low shot off the post. Madrid was warned.
With seven minutes remaining, Martino’s men completed the comeback. Xabi Alonso’s clumsy tackle on Iniesta awarded the away side their second penalty of the night. Messi coolly struck his spot-kick into the top corner and secured a historic Barcelona victory.
“I can hardly talk about Leo but there’s no need, it’s compliment after compliment,” Martino said. “Today he breaks another record…I hope he gives me the match ball.”
Seven goals in three games exemplifies Messi's slow return to his best form. Messi stamped his authority on another Clasico, and his overall brilliance not only highlights Ancelotti’s naivety, but also underlines his importance within the squad.
Barcelona is a great squad, but on his day, Messi can push the Catalan side past any opponent.
More about Lionel messi, Real madrid, Barcelona, Cristiano ronaldo, El Classico
 
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