Lionel Messi was battered and bruised by Real Madrid but came through with a goal that could change the destination for La Liga's championship trophy.
They said Luis Enrique had lost the dressing room. They wondered if Lionel Messi, goalless in two games against Juventus and his previous six Clasico matches, had lost his magic. They worried that the squad was not strong enough; and they feared ending the season with only the Copa del Rey to show for it, having won five trophies in the previous two campaigns. With one astonishing performance, Barcelona–and in particular Messi–responded. Don't write them off just yet.
Only a win would do for Barcelona, and it looked like Real Madrid, down to 10 men after the 22nd red card of Sergio Ramos’s career, had all but settled La Liga's title discussion when James Rodriguez came off the bench to make it 2-2 with five minutes to go. It was typical Madrid this season; substitutes have scored big goals in important matches, and this seemed to be another one.
But Barcelona was not finished. Sergi Roberto, maligned for much of the season for not being Dani Alves, set off on an injury-time counterattack and was supported by Andre Gomes and Jordi Alba, two others who have not enjoyed the seasons they wanted. Alba cut the ball back and there, on the edge of the area, was Messi: he had scored earlier in the night and he had been kicked, many times, and elbowed (by Marcelo) in a clash that left him bleeding from his nose and mouth. With a first-time blast, Messi powered the ball inside Keylor Navas’s near post to seal the most dramatic of victories. It was the final kick of the game.
The outpouring of emotion from Barcelona was understandable: the players swamped on top of each other in a huge pile-up. Coming from behind to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League was one thing; but this, against Real Madrid, in its rival's stadium–this seemed bigger.
There have been other great goals that Messi has scored, of course. Think of the solo dribble from his own half against Getafe (2007), and a similar one against Real Zaragoza (2010); he’s also scored great goals in big games too, in the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid (2011), or the dribble in the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao (2015). This belongs up there too, because of the context: the pressure around Luis Enrique, the battering that Messi took–as always without complaint–in the previous 94 minutes; the fact that Madrid has won more points from losing positions than any other team. Messi makes the impossible possible.
His goal may not change the destination of the title, which is still in Madrid’s hands given its game in hand, but it keeps the race alive. At one stage Madrid was five points ahead with a game in hand; with five games left, now it’s all-square and Barcelona has the better head-to-head record, which is La Liga's tiebreaker. Madrid’s game in hand is against Celta Vigo, and it also has the not-so-insignificant distraction of a two-legged Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid on the mind.
For now, the Bernabeu belongs to Messi. If that’s not going to expedite an agreement on his new contract, which expires in 15 months, nothing will.