Him again. Lionel Messi knows when to pick his moments. Cristiano Ronaldo hits what, for him, is a torrid scoring drought, and Lionel Messi claims a record breaking hat-trick as Barcelona supplant Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
In this eternal rivalry it’s the equivalent of Messi kicking Ronaldo when he’s down – not only did he knock Madrid into second place in the table, but he also knocked Ronaldo into second place in the Pichichi standings. What hurts the Portuguese more can be speculated on elsewhere but the fact is, as Ronaldo and Madrid toil, Messi and Barca appear to be on song.
Toil in this case is a draw and a defeat in their last two games, and, for Ronaldo, only three goals in four appearances, such are the standards set by Los Blancos and their No. 7. In the pressure cooker world of Spanish football neither Madrid nor Barca are allowed an off-day, and the same goes for Ronaldo and Messi. With 80 EuroFantasyLeague points this weekend was most definitely one of Messi’s on days.
Messi did have a lot going for him this weekend. Barca faced the pliable Rayo Vallecano, Paco Jemez’s admirable but ultimately suicidal troops, keeping the highest of high lines at Camp Nou, arguably the worst possible place to leave acres of space behind the defence. Ronaldo meanwhile had to go to the cauldron that is San Mames, against an Athletic Bilbao side that has finally found its stride, suffering a similar fate as Messi did against Malaga. But, you can only beat what’s put in front of you, and Messi was a major reason Barca put Rayo to the sword.
Yet, but for the referee’s whistle, Messi would have come away from the game facing more questions about his penalties. Christian Alvarez saved a spot kick so tame he could have put his cap on it but Jesus Gil Manzano spotted some encroachment and gave Messi another chance. The players running too early into the penalty area had no effect whatsoever on Messi’s awful penalty but he made the most of his reprieve with an emphatic second attempt. The penalty, Barca’s third goal of the day, was the one that finally sealed victory.
If Messi’s penalty miss, subsequent re-take and eventual hat-trick are a sign of how events can turn on one decision, then so too is his form since January. The year didn’t start well amid speculation of a row with Luis Enrique but since then Messi has racked up 18 goals in 16 appearances and, in this case, the decision was Enrique’s to move Messi to the right wing. Suddenly Barca are both balanced and dangerous and more is being eked out of Luis Suarez, without reducing Messi’s effectiveness.
At a time when Madrid-based newspaper AS is asking its readers who out of the BBC – Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale – should lose their place, with the Welshman singled out by almost half of the respondents, Messi fired Barca back to the only place that truly matters – first place.