Barcelona v Real Madrid
Tomorrow: Camp Nou, 8pm
TV: Sky Sports 5
La Liga duels between Barcelona and Real Madrid are often billed as personal battles between their respective superstars.
But rarely over recent seasons have Barca’s Lionel Messi and Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo gone into a ‘Clasico’ in such divergent form, and with such contrasting media attention.
Messi drew widespread acclaim with a mesmerising performance as Barca eased past Manchester City into the Champions League quarter-finals on Wednesday. The Argentine did not score, but led the City defence a merry dance with his dribbling runs and perceptive passes, completely dominating the game from the right wing.
“We are playing very well but important things are coming,” Messi himself said on Canal Plus after the game. “Madrid, the quarter-finals... I feel good and am enjoying myself, but there is a long way to go yet.”
The assist which laid on Wednesday’s game’s only goal for Ivan Rakitic was Messi’s 21st of the season. He has also scored 43 times already this term — having stepped on the accelerator in 2015 with 20 goals in his last 16 games across all competitions.
“This Messi is scary,” editor of Catalan-based daily Mundo Deportivo editor, Santi Nolla, wrote Thursday. “He has added to his repertoire of nutmegs, diagonal passes, dangerous carrying on the ball, and assists. The Clasico will be a great game, but Barca have a little advantage — they have Messi.”
All of which contrasts starkly with the cloud around Ronaldo at the moment — the 2014 Ballon D’Or winner has just five La Liga goals since the turn of the year [while Messi has scored five in his last two league games].
Welsh winger Gareth Bale had been taking much of the flak for Madrid’s recent poor form — which has seen them relinquish top spot in La Liga to Barcelona, and also be whistled by their own fans when almost being knocked out the Champions League by Schalke.
However, Bale eased that pressure last weekend by ending a nine game run by scoring a brace in the 2-0 win at home to Levante. Ronaldo though brought more focus on himself by conspicuously not congratulating his teammate for either goal, and then appearing to insult an Estadio Bernabeu crowd which was again whistling their players.
Ronaldo has said himself he is playing through pain due to a longstanding knee problem, but on Wednesday Madrid-based AS brought in a Portuguese guest columnist, who wrote that the issues were more psychological, a reaction to recent criticism and personal issues.
“Those who know [Ronaldo] the best believe the crisis he is suffering is more psychological and physical,” claimed Manuel Pereira. “Its origin is in factors related to his personal life. To this we can add his famous demands on himself, which provoke anxiety when he realises things are not going well, over a long period of time.”
Marca then ran a series of ‘insider’ pieces suggesting Blancos president Florentino Perez might think about cashing in on the now 30-year-old next summer if he can’t justify his €20m annual salary.
“The Bernabeu boardroom is not currently considering the possible exit of the Portuguese,” very well connected local reporter Jose Felix Diaz wrote on Friday, in a phrase which many took to mean the exact opposite.
The Barca camp have all been too polite or intelligent to point to the problems among their rivals.
“Maybe this isn’t their best moment of the season,” centre-back Gerard Pique said. “But the formbook goes out the window for the Clasico.”
However former players are under less strictures, and ex-blaugrana striker Hristo Stoichkov twisted the knife, when asked if recent performances had proven now Messi had now again passed out Ronaldo to be the world’s undisputed number one. “Everyone knows it,” Stoichkov said. “You cannot compare a myth with a player nearing the end of his career. But if you do not recognise your own ego kills you. I believe [Cristiano] is jealous.”
Wherever you look the message all week has been clear — Messi is currently ascendant, and Ronaldo has begun what could be a very long fall. It is however worth pointing out the Portuguese has scored 30 La Liga goals this season, just two less than his personal rival. And that a Madrid win at the Camp Nou would send them back top of the La Liga table.
The defending Champions League holders have also qualified for next month’s quarter-finals, while the return to fitness of key players Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric is a big boost.
So things could turn around quickly. Ahead of tomorrow though, in the battle of the Clasico talismen, it really is advantage Messi and Barca.
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