Lionel Messi had a black eye, a bloody mouth and his Barcelona shirt in his hands. The board had gone up signaling two minutes left in the clásico: not enough for anyone – this was the game that should have gone on forever – but just enough for another twist, even later and more dramatic than the first. It was 2-2, James Rodríguez putting Real Madrid within touching distance of the title five minutes from time, and Barcelona had a throw-in down in the south-east corner of the Bernabéu. The clock had read 91.27 – 33 seconds and 100 meters to go; 26 seconds later, Messi stood in the north-west corner celebrating the goal that changed everything. Behind him, Dani Carvajal beat the ground with his fists, wondering how the hell it had happened. Here’s how.
A wild, wonderful game had gone from 1-0 to 1-1 and from there to 1-2 but James, on as a sub, had equalized in the 86th minute – enough to re-establish Madrid’s lead at the top but not enough for their players, who saw an opportunity, even with 10 men. Barcelona, apparently crushed by the inevitability of it all, were there to be finished off. “We dropped terribly after the 2-2,” Luis Enrique admitted. Zinedine Zidane said: “We could have done things differently but we were optimistic and thought we could score the third.” So James had another go, and Marcelo and Marco Asensio. And when a long ball drifted out Madrid were drawn in, applying pressure and seeking one last chance. Which was when Barcelona slipped from them, playing their way into the title race via the longest route. A counter, most called it, but it wasn’t.
Sergi Roberto took the throw. Sergio Busquets returned it to him and Sergi Roberto played it to Gerard Piqué, on his own byline. Pressured by Mateo Kovacic and Asensio, Piqué clipped neatly over them to Busquets, who nudged it inside to Sergi Roberto, up and running by the corner of his area. The clock read 91.33. He surged past Luka Modric, who lurched at him, leg out, then accelerated beyond Marcelo. “Bloody foul him!” Cristiano Ronaldo would shout, despair scrawled across his face, and Marcelo regretfully admitted he should have done exactly that. But that wasn’t so easy and, he said, he couldn’t know it would end like this. There were 24 seconds left when Barça’s right‑back went by and still a long way to go. But there was somewhere to go now, space opening.
Sergi Roberto raced into it: 10 meters, 20, 30. “I don’t know how I did it; I was dead,” he admitted. He passed to André Gomes, who paused. Nineteen seconds left. Gomes soon got what he was waiting for: Jordi Alba zooming up the line again, legs whirring, head back. Seventeen seconds left. Everyone bombed into the area, towards goal. Well, almost everyone. From the other side, Messi saw something and arched across into the gap behind the gathering crowd. Alba took another touch and, 15 seconds left, pulled back. Seeing Messi coming, Sergi Roberto ran out the way. Fourteen seconds to go. Messi guided it first time through them. Nacho, blocked by Luis Suárez’s backside, saw it flash past on one side. Toni Kroos, stretching, saw it flash past on the other. Navas could not reach it. The clock read 91.47, and 91.53 by the time Messi was there holding his shirt before the stand.
“Messi has the last laugh,” ran Marca’s headline – but he was not laughing. He stood motionless, staring ahead. “Remember my name,” ran the headline on the front of L’Esportiu, like they could forget it. There was something about the image: Messi silently showing them his shirt. One photo caught the exact moment he let go and raised his right hand; the shirt seems to float as if by magic. If there was something in that, there was more in the look. Defiant, he had decided it. He’d scored a superb first, gauze still in his mouth after an elbow left him bleeding. Sergio Ramos had been sent off for a wild challenge on him, taking off two-footed. And Casemiro had eventually been removed because of the risk he might follow, leaving Kovacic to take over. But Messi had kept running at them, on and on. Now here he was, still standing. No seconds left.
The referee showed him a yellow card and then pointed towards the tunnel. Messi had decided the clásico with the last kick, a fitting finale for a wild and wonderful game. A massive one, too – for its importance and impact. While the 650 million viewing figure happily chucked about was the usual “potential audience” sleight of hand, this was huge. Javier Tebas, the president of the league, proudly watched it with refugees – yes, the same president who says he wishes there was “a Spanish Le Pen” – and it had viewers in 185 countries worldwide. The front cover of AS called it “the greatest spectacle on earth” – and they had a point.
There may have been better clásicos technically – at times this was surprisingly imprecise and Luis Enrique said that both teams had ceded too many chances – but not many have been as close, exciting or dramatic. Not many have been so decisive, either: a win, even a draw, and Madrid would have almost certainly been champions for the first time in five years. They had the draw with five minutes to go and lost it looking for the win with 13 seconds left. “We still depend on ourselves,” Zidane rightly insisted: five wins and a draw and Madrid would be champions. But it is close now. It could go either way, just as this could have. There were 38 shots. There was a late twist, then a later twist. Luis Enrique said: “The 92nd minute is their thing normally but we like winning that way, too.”
There were countless subplots, players and stories to highlight. Gerard Piqué v Ramos, Round VII – and it probably won’t be long before that becomes the issue to emerge from the clásico, the Spain centre-backs taking aim at each other again while everyone else takes up their trenches. Gareth Bale’s inclusion, followed swiftly by his departure. The performance of his replacement Asensio, a footballer who is going to be huge. Samuel Umtiti. Ronaldo. Both goalkeepers: between them Keylor Navas and Marc-André ter Stegen let in five, but it could have been 10 or more. Sergi Roberto: not only that run, but the game. Gomes, everyone’s favourite punchbag, coming on to play a vital role. And Marcelo, who might not have made the foul but played plenty of football.
But above all – way, way above all – there was Messi. This was his 47th goal of the season and his 500th for Barcelona. He didn’t half choose his moment: the last minute of a clásico that Barcelona had to win, or see their season end in failure.
Of those 500, 402 have been scored with his left foot, 74 with his right, 22 with his head, one with a hand and one with his chest. While it is a decade since that clásico at Camp Nou when he scored a hat-trick, and he had gone six games without a goal in this fixture, he has scored 24 of the 500 in clásicos – more than anyone else, ahead of Alfredo Di Stéfano – and 14 of them at the Bernabéu, more than at any other away ground. The place he has scored the second most, by the way? The Vicente Calderón. They will remember his name, all right. Asked how he was after the game, Zidane said: “Bad.”
Not that this was only the goals; this was everything and Messi is everything. It was not just the Barcelona shirt he held in his hands, it is the whole of Barcelona. At times the dependency can be troublesome and it is uncomfortable for his manager. “Do you want us to say sorry because Messi decided the game? Does that not count?” Luis Enrique said afterwards. He had a point but, yes, it counts and mostly it is something to celebrate. Here, it certainly was. On Saint George’s [Jordi’s] day, patron saint of Catalonia, when roses and books are given as gifts, Messi had slayed Madrid and taken Barcelona top.
“Happy Sant Jordi: a flower, a shirt, 2-3 and home,” Piqué tweeted. “Sant Messi,” cheered the front of Sport, adding on the inside: “He was Sant Jordi”. One Sport columnist called it “an orgasm” while the editorial claimed “football belongs to Messi”, which it doesn’t – alas, it belongs to far worse people than that.
La Vanguardia went for “Messi slays the dragon” and El Mundo Deportivo chose “Ecstasy!”, while Marca led on: “Messi decides: there is a league.” AS’s match report said the same. “There is a league because Messi exists,” ran El País, whose columnist Manuel Jabois, the man who has begun creating a kind of narrative for Real Madrid for the first time, likened him to Michael Jordan. Even AS’s mad Madridista Tomás Roncero admitted: “He destroyed us.” The former Barcelona striker Pichi Alonso, not normally given to grand exaggeration, said that He had proven that He is God. As for Luis Enrique, he again described Messi as the best player in history, noting: “He is always decisive, even when he is at home having his dinner.”
In fact, it was Neymar who was at home having his dinner, suspended. Soon after the game, his phone rang. It was Messi, calling from the Bernabéu dressing room to let him join the celebrations and tell him how it went. He knew: he had watched on television as, 600km away, Barcelona’s No10 reopened the league title race and raised his shirt.