Lionel Messi will make his 45th appearance in El Clasico when resurgent La Liga superpowers Barcelona face arch-rivals Real Madrid on Saturday night. But should football fans be prepared for this to be his swan song?
For a while, it seemed like this season’s La Liga title race was over. Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid had built an impressive lead at the table summit that in recent years had threatened to arrest Barcelona and Real Madrid’s stranglehold in the league, especially as both powerhouses battled for momentum for various reasons.
In Barcelona’s case, the decline seemed most obvious. Long gone were the days of their Tiki-Taka excellence, which led them to be the most successful European team for the past decade or more. Instead, it was replaced by a Champions League whitewash last summer, which was whitewashed with the kind permission of Bayern Munich.
Rancor was felt both in the boardroom and on the field. Barcelona’s greatest player of all time, Argentine magician Messi, glanced elsewhere for the first time in his career and pushed for a move to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City Nou in a feud that threatened to escape the camp and concludes in a courtroom.
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The new boss Ronald Koeman also fought early to shape his philosophies early on in what threatened to mean a further decline in the legacy of the big club.
But when Barcelona and Messi threatened to degenerate into an Ozymandias-like shattered image of what they once were, things began to change.
Atletico’s lead was reduced from 12 points in December to one point today, meaning Saturday’s ‘El Clasico’ winner could take over Simeone’s side in the standings – despite Real Madrid being more than four ahead of them Gates would need.
What has changed? At least in Barcelona’s case, all you have to do is look at Messi. After failing to impress for much of the year in 2020, this year it can compete with any of the five best leagues in Europe.
His last 13 games in Barca colors resulted in 16 goals and seven assists in a run that is vital for his team’s late league title and promotion to the Copa del Rey final next Sunday.
Messi will tie Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos’ s record, who will not play on Saturday, for most El Clasico appearances (45) in a game that was earmarked as his potential final appearance for Barcelona at the start of the campaign during his absence the hottest rivalry in Spanish football.
However, the re-election of Joan Laporta to the Barcelona presidency – the man who led the club through its most successful era under Pep Guardiola – coincided with the strong surge in form, suggesting that Messi would be convinced to stay in that what would the fulfillment of a key Laporta campaign promise be.
Real Madrid also come into play in a rich form. They have been unbeaten since January as coach Zinedine Zidane continues to bring impressive performances out of the galaxy of veteran stars like Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. However, Ramos’ absence was palpable in such a crucial situation.
The time for the comeback of both clubs could not have come at a better time. In Messi’s case, it is believed that his future at the club is directly related to their ability to prove that they can still win trophies despite the club being burdened with a debt that hinders their maneuverability in the transfer market.
The game on Saturday will be decisive for that. If Barcelona can stay ahead in their quest for another title, the guess is that it could be the key to convincing the man who wrote so much of their success to stay just a little bit longer – and thus his record-breaking “El Clasico” appearance will not end here.
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