Is he fit? Would he start? Could Barcelona win at the Bernabeu without him?
As is usually the case, Lionel Messi dominated the pre-match agenda ahead of El Clasico.
Nobody has scored more goals in Clasicos than Messi. After two months out with a knee injury, he was back.
But for the first time since 2007, Barcelona’s talisman did not start against Real Madrid. For the first time in years, the Clasico wasn’t billed as Messi versus Ronaldo.
So could Barcelona win at the Bernabeu without him? Yes. Emphatically so.
With Luis Suarez and Neymar in this sort of mood, it was never really in doubt.
Again, the other two members of the stellar ‘MSN’ forward line, the men who were the supporting cast to Messi’s starring role, came to the fore. Again, they both scored. Again Barcelona won without their main man.
When Messi appeared from the bench, in the 57th minute, the Clasico was already won. Suarez, Neymar and Andres Iniesta had seen to that.
Suarez opened the scoring after 11 minutes with a typically unerring finish. Neymar got in on the act shortly before the break, when he collected Iniesta’s pass and slotted coolly beyond Keylor Navas at the Madrid goalkeeper’s near post.
Since Messi’s injury, Barcelona have played six games in La Liga, scoring 18 goals. Suarez and Neymar have scored 17 of them. ‘Messi-dependence’ is starting to feel like an outdated concept.
This was Iniesta’s 32nd Clasico, and his first as Barca’s club captain. The playmaker marked the occasion with a performance of jaw-dropping class, which was crowned with a brilliant strike for Barca’s third goal eight minutes after half-time.
Three-nil up at the Bernabeu. With 33 minutes left to play. Cue Messi.
The Argentine, understandably not up to full speed and fitness, strolled his way through the remainder of the game – embellishing, rather than dominating, Barca’s pretty passing patterns.
Inevitably, Messi had his say as he was heavily involved in the build-up to Barca’s fourth goal -a cheeky, dinked effort from the irrepressible Suarez.
But while this was an evening to remember for one former Liverpool idol, it was nothing short of a nightmare for another.
Where does this defeat leave Madrid coach Rafael Benitez?
Already under pressure and hardly universally loved by the Bernabeu faithful, the manner of this loss – chastening, definitive, embarrassing – could spell the end of his reign at his boyhood club after just five months.
White handkerchiefs are seen as the kiss of death for any manager in Spain – and Madrid’s fans were quick to show their feelings at both half-time and full-time.
Florentino Perez is not a man known for his patience, and Benitez may well feel the trigger-happy Madrid president’s wrath sooner rather than later.
This win puts Barca six points clear of their great rivals at the top of La Liga, but that does not tell the full story. There was a gulf, a chasm, between these teams.
And if Suarez and Neymar continue in this vein, supplemented by a fit-again Messi, that gap will only widen.
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