Barcelona’s title victory had become, with two weeks of the season to go and a four-point lead in La Blaugrana’s favour, more a question of when, not if. Maybe they’d win the League at the home of the now-former champions Atletico Madrid, in a nice symmetry, after Atletico won it last year at Camp Nou. Or maybe not. Maybe it’d be in front of their own fans on the final day against Deportivo La Coruna.
Either way it was hard to see Barca dropping enough points to let Real Madrid back in at the final hour. And there were plenty of reasons for that – Barca had only conceded 19 goals in the entire League campaign prior to Sunday’s kick-off and, after yet another Claudio Bravo clean sheet, still have only conceded 19 goals. They had not just Messi but Neymar and, it was thought, Luis Suarez, only for the Uruguayan to be ruled out through injury. But not to worry – Pedro Rodriguez was the alternative, a replacement who would walk into almost any other team in the world.
A point wouldn’t have made the title a certainty but it would be a good result in any other circumstances. Going to Vicente Calderon and not getting beat isn’t an easy thing to do and Barca would have fancied their chances against struggling Deportivo six days later. It would have prolonged the affair and ultimately the resolution would have been the same. But Barca didn’t play for the draw. They didn’t even change the approach that has been so successful since January, despite the absence of Suarez.
Everything clicked for Barca when Suarez was allowed to go through the middle and Messi moved to the right wing. Whether it was the Argentine’s initiative or that of Luis Enrique doesn’t really matter. If Messi suggested it, Enrique deserves credit for going along with it – for recognising why it was a good idea and being big enough to sign off on it. It was a change that set in motion a sequence of events that culminated with Messi’s second half goal at the Calderon, and with the emotional celebrations after the final whistle.
Messi won’t beat Cristiano Ronaldo to the Pichichi this season, barring a truly extraordinary final round. Four goals, like the four points between Real Madrid and Barca, is probably too much ground to make up. But Messi’s Barca have beaten Ronaldo’s Madrid and perhaps not just in the League. There’s still the Copa del Rey and the Champions League to come, both trophies that literally have Madrid’s name on them. Ronaldo will win the individual battle for the Pichichi but Messi has already won the wider war.
Ronaldo and Messi are inextricably, inevitably linked. You can’t have one without the other. They divide opinions and their supporters oppose each other like roundheads and cavaliers. Perhaps the key to this season is that Messi has an army standing together with him, while Ronaldo has been shooting alone in the dark. Ronaldo gets the glory, Messi gets the trophies.