Two wizards conjure up a magic show


El Clásico may be big but Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are simply bigger, writes SID LOWE

THE HOMAGE to Catalonia turned into a homage to Cristiano Messi and Lionel Ronaldo. They say that sport and politics should not mix but sport and politics do mix, especially when it comes to Real Madrid versus Barcelona. There may be no more political match on the planet and this Sunday was billed as the most political match of them all, certainly since 1975. Madrid-Barcelona, Gerard Pique admitted this week, has come to be seen as Spain-Catalonia, even if it shouldn’t. In the end, though, it was another match that captured the imagination: Messi versus Ronaldo.

On the day that Franco died, Joan Granados and Jaume Rosell picked up the bust of the dictator in an office at Camp Nou and began to throw it to each other across the room, laughing. The bust fell and smashed into pieces. Soon after, Barcelona faced Madrid and Camp Nou filled with hastily stitched senyeras – Catalan flags, still officially banned.

Jaume Rosell is the father of Sandro, the current president of Barcelona, the same man who recently attended a march on Catalonia’s national day, September 11th. Rosell insisted that he did so in a personal capacity. But, to a backdrop of economic crisis, failed negotiations over the fiscal pact between Barcelona and Madrid, the calling of elections and talk of a referendum on independence, this was set to be more then a game and the traditional pre-match mosaic, organised by the club, would be a senyera: 98,000 people holding up yellow and red cards.

It was going to be explosive in the stands. It was, as it turned out, much more explosive on the pitch. When the stadium clock ticked up to 17 minutes and 14 seconds, it began. The year 1714 was the end of the siege of Barcelona, when the city was defeated. Up went the chant from a large number of the fans in the stadium: “Independence! Independence!” The game hadn’t really got going yet; it was as if everyone was waiting to get that out of the way first. But then it did. And when it did, it turned into something special.

Not so much because of the game as a whole but because of two men. The gap between the two teams remained eight points and the gap between Barcelona and Atletico in second is now just goal difference. There were some impressive performances – from Sergio Busquets, Martin Montoya, and Pedro, Mesut Ozil, Pepe and Sami Khedira – and yet the final score and the sense of excitement concealed a game that created relatively few clear chances, no truly outstanding saves and occasionally, a strange sloppiness in the play.

It also disguised the fact that Barcelona have not reached their level, a side that builds its moves with patience and precision it is striking that one goal came from a mistake by Pepe and the other from a 25-yard free-kick. Real constructed both their goals, Barcelona did not. There was a sense on Sunday night of Madrid drawing close to Barcelona’s level.

But that was all eclipsed by Messi and Ronaldo. It was about them. Everything was about them. Ronaldo scored. Messi scored back. Messi scored. Ronaldo scored back. The two best players in the world, matching each other stride for stride again.

Two shots off target each, two shots on target each. Two goals each. Eight each in the league.

The statistics are insane. Between them they have scored 100 club goals in 2012. Ronaldo became the first player in history to score in six consecutive Clasicos. Messi moved to within one goal of Alfredo Di Stefano’s all-time record for Clasico goals, at the age of 25. Messi scored his 150th goal at Camp Nou, his 100th goal in the league. Ronaldo took his total to 160 goals in 155 games for Real.

“Talking about who the best player in the world is should be banned because they’re so good,” Jose Mourinho said. “Ronaldo would probably have had greater recognition if it had not been for Messi,” Tito Vilanova noted. For the first time, AS gave its crack award to two men: Messi and Ronaldo. Sport called them “stars”. “From another planet,” said the cover of Marca. “Monsters, Inc,” it said inside. No one can keep up with them, except each other. By the end it was impossible not to be wrapped up in it all. In their brilliance, in the way that just when you think they can’t do anything more, they do.

They strode across this game too; the biggest players on the biggest stage. It was billed as the biggest yet and there they were yet again. Not so much Madrid-Barcelona as Spain-Catalonia, more Madrid-Barcelona as Ronaldo-Messi. And when the clock ticked up to 17 minutes and 14 seconds in the second half, they almost missed it. They were busy celebrating Messi’s second.

By the numbers

160: Real Madrid goals scored by Cristiano Ronaldo in 155 games since his arrival in June 2009

185: Barcelona goals scored by Lionel Messi in 178 games over the same period

17: Goals scored by Messi in el clasico matches, one short of Alfredo Di Stefano’s record

6: Consecutive clasicos in which Ronaldo has scored, a record

3: Consecutive European Golden Boots shared by the pair, Messi winning last season and in 2009-10, Ronaldo in 2010-11

5: Consecutive seasons one of the pair has been Champions League top scorer, Messi topping the last four, Ronaldo in 2008-09

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