La Liga's star duo back on song

La Liga went into the last international break on the back of something bizarre — both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi had failed to score in both of the opening two games.

Never before had two consecutive La Liga weeks elapsed without the Real Madrid and Barcelona superstars finding the net.

Adding to the strangeness of the situation was Celta Vigo and Eibar topping the standings, while Spurs flop Roberto Soldado and the much maligned Gareth Bale were among the league’s top scorers two games in.

Ronaldo’s lull continued through both games with Portugal during the week away, leading to much musing in the Madrid sports press about the 30-year-old attacker having gone seven games and 50 days without a goal.

That apparent drought was over just seven minutes into Madrid’s trip to Espanyol on Saturday afternoon, with Ronaldo running onto a Luka Modric long-ball and applying a clinical finish.

Ten minutes later he confidently scored his second from the penalty spot after Bale was bundled over.

With the Espanyol defence having long wilted, the hat-trick was not long in arriving, and last season’s ‘Pichichi’ top scorer took full advantage after the break to expertly knock in goals four and five of the afternoon.

The narrative had quickly changed — with the local media now hailing Ronaldo’s achievement of moving to 231 goals in 203 La Liga appearances for Los Blancos, passing the club’s previous domestic league record scorer Raul Gonzalez (who took 550 games to score his 228).

Such a feat appeared sure to secure the front pages of Sunday’s sports papers, especially when word emerged that Messi was only a substitute for Barca’s game at Atletico Madrid on Saturday evening.

The Argentine had not trained with his club since returning from international duty, then attended the birth of his second son Mateo on Friday evening.

But it was still a shock to see him rested from the XI — especially given the furious row that erupted last January when coach Luis Enrique had taken such a step.

Messi had started every La Liga and Champions League game since, but here he was watching on at kick-off at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.

The first half was goalless — with the game bursting to life early in the second period when Fernando Torres put Atletico ahead before Neymar equalised with a superb free-kick.

But everyone was still waiting for the main man’s arrival — and right on the hour mark Messi was sent on.

A game which had been relatively tight was immediately flowing only one way, with clear chances created for Luis Suarez and Neymar and a strong penalty appeal turned down.

Atletico were rocking — and it was no surprise when the winning goal came through Messi’s first effort on target, a perfectly placed shot after Suarez had laid the ball off.

Nobody will likely now know what the extra sensitive 28-year-old thought of Enrique’s decision to leave him out, but there seemed no mixed feelings during a sweet goal celebration dedicated to his new son.

If La Liga had taken its first international break of the season with a strange look to the standings, normal service has been resumed.

Messi’s Barcelona are now big favourites to retain the title, while Ronaldo’s haul means he’s at short odds already to be La Liga’s top scorer again this season.

“So here we are again, another league awaits with Cristiano and Messi as protagonists,” wrote AS editor Alfredo Relaño on Sunday morning. “Alongside these two, the rest is just a blur.”


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