What a difference a week makes. After Barcelona’s away trip to Valladolid in the previous round, Lionel Messi and co. were the focus of much criticism. Some, it seemed, were ready to write his and Barca’s obituaries. The cycle was not finishing, it was finished some proclaimed. As ever, such talk turned out to be very premature. Still, the criticism was justified. After all, the Blaugrana were not only defeated by the relegation-threatened Pucela , but, they were also outplayed in many departments. However, it was a completely different story on Sunday afternoon at Camp Nou.
Barca, and Messi in particular, were back to their stunning best. Seven goals without response against a hapless and hopeless Osasuna side and, well, things are looking much better all of a sudden in sunny Cataluña. Not only this, but, history was made too.
With his hat-trick, Messi became Barcelona’s all-time highest scorer as he took his club tally to 371, two goals more than Paulino Alcantara’s record that had stood for 87 years. And, let us remember, Messi is still only 26-years-old. From this juncture, he is sure to leave Alcantara and the rest so far behind him that one begins to ponder whether anyone will ever match him – probably not. Messi’s record is a timely reminder of just how great he really is.
Timely because of late Messi has not been so consistently at his best. He has at times looked disinterested and unhappy on the field this season. The goals have not been flowing as much and that air of dominance about him, that invincibility, has at times been absent. Though, this was absolutely not the case against Osasuna.
Messi was back to his vintage best. He was at the centre of everything. He not only got himself a hat-trick, but, he was creating chances for his teammates and provided one superb assist to Pedro in the dying stages. In addition, he looked happy and content. So contrasting was his performance and demeanour in Valladolid the week prior, one is left to ask what was so different? And the answer to this is simple; Neymar.
In his presser after the game, one of the first questions Barca boss Tata Martino had to respond to was; “What happened to Neymar? Why did he not play?”. The Argentine’s response was that following his injury the Brazilian is still in the process of regaining full fitness. Well, it’d be interesting to know how many of the journalists present would have bought this justification. A few if any, one suspects.
The reason being is that Neymar and Messi have simply not gelled when on the field together. When Neymar plays, Messi looks annoyed. And while Neymar has continually insisted that he is there only to help Messi, his natural role is perhaps just too similar to that of his teammate. And this, many believe, was why Barca never got going in Valladolid. The belief is that the two cannot play together.
Barca may be in seventh heaven following their emphatic victory, but, this is the elephant in the room that Martino needs to deal with before it gets any bigger. On the evidence of Sunday, with Messi in this kind of form, Neymar is not needed. With Pedro and Alexis Sanchez as his sidekicks, Messi and Co. looked that much better. Yet, Neymar will not be content to be sat on the bench and perhaps neither the club’s management who did so much – and spent so much – to take him to Cataluña.
Nevertheless, Barca are back in form. And with the Clasico this coming weekend, it is just in time too. The Catalans remain four points behind Real Madrid and with just eight games remaining, it is a must-win game for Martino’s players.
For Madrid, it is a must-not-lose game. A draw would suit the capital side fine enough after they managed to keep the same distance between them and their rivals. But only just did Los Blancos do it. They did not impress by any stretch at La Rosaleda and only skinned it thanks to a solitary goal from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Atletico earned all three points but they too did so by the slimmest of margins. As it was with Madrid, it was Atletico’s star man, Diego Costa, whose goal sufficed. It sets them up nicely for the weekend to come. Diego Simeone’s men will be salivating at the prospect of seeing one of Barca or Madrid or even both – should they draw – possibly slipping up in this thrilling race for La Liga. Another twist in the plot could yet be on the cards.