By: Charlie Ryan, Staff Writer
While individual moments of greatness have burst through the clouds of Champions League disappointment, managerial drama, and internal turmoil, this season has largely been one to forget for FC Barcelona, while rivals Real Madrid are on the verge of a third Champions League trophy in four years and are the frontrunners in La Liga’s title race. A Clásico victory for Los Blancos would send them 6 points clear atop the table with a game in hand. Given the midweek results and the implications of the final score, this Clásico was setting up to be a thriller.
Barça boss Luis Enrique deployed his traditional 433 with Messi back in his classic false-9 role due to Neymar’s suspension. Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane chose the same formation for his men. Madrid started the match strong with midfield colossus Casemiro establishing his physical presence in the center of the park and both fullbacks pushing upfield in possession. Casemiro broke the deadlock in the 28’ after cleaning up Sergio Ramos’ effort on goal. A suspect high elbow from Marcelo caught Messi in his face and left him bleeding and a wad of gauze shoved in his mouth. A brief spell of quality possession found the bloodied Argentine space in the box, who cooly slotted it past Keylor Navas and left a humiliated Dani Carvajal chasing his shadow. Barcelona closed out the half comfortably in possession.
Both sides emerged from the tunnel with guns blazing. An early spell of dangerous possession from Madrid was quelled by stunning stops from keeper Marc-André Ter Stegen. Barcelona found an identical roadblock in Navas, whose spectacular saves kept Luis Suárez from finding the net on several occasions. As the field stretched and each team pressed hard, it became clear that neither club would settle for a draw on this monumental occasion. After shaking off Toni Kroos outside of the box in the 73’, Croatian midfielder Ivan Raktić unleashed a searing strike past Navas, putting Barcelona up 2-1. Soon after entering the game for Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez equalized for Los Blancos in the 87’, courtesy of an impeccable low cross from Marcelo.
As Sergi Roberto burst through the open midfield in the dying seconds of extra time, you could sense something- something special, something unforgettable was brewing. Roberto played the ball to Andre Gomes, who spotted the overlapping run from Jordi Alba on the edge of the box and laid it off to him. Alba immediately cut the ball back into the heart of the Madrid box. Cometh the man cometh the hour. With one stroke of the left foot, Leo Messi sent the traveling Culés into rapture, silenced the Madridistas, scored his 500th goal for his boyhood club, and launched them to the top of La Liga.
Messi’s legacy will be filled with an astounding goalscoring, assisting, and winning record, alongside dozens of individual honors and trophies. But as fans, we will not remember these numbers. We will fondly recall his moments of utter brilliance, moments that gave us goosebumps or made us smile from ear to ear, and moments that made us pinch ourselves to remind us that this is not a dream.
Photo: Messi’s statue-worthy celebration after netting the winner. Courtesy of the AP