Barcelona vs Real Madrid - El Clasico: Scintillating Lionel Messi back in the title role

It took some time, but Messi is finally back at the level he reached under Pep

There will be no Pep Guardiola watching Leo Messi live at the Nou Camp when Barcelona face Real Madrid. The Bayern Munich manager will have just watched his team play Borussia Mönchengladbach at home when the Clasico kicks-off. But, based on the evidence he saw at first hand this week, he can enjoy the game on television safe in the knowledge that the genius he left behind in 2012 is back to his very best.

Messi stagnated in the first two seasons after Guardiola’s departure; he has now not just returned to the levels of brilliance not seen since the Guardiola peaks of 2009 and 2011, which both produced European Cup wins over Manchester United, but also reinvented himself again.

Under Frank Rijkaard, Messi was a wide forward. Under Pep he became a ‘false nine’. Under Luis Enrique – at least on Wednesday against Manchester City – he seemed to have become omnipresent.

There was a moment during that 1-0 win over Manchester City just after Ivan Rakitic scored from Leo Messi’s cross-field pass, when the watching Guardiola could no longer control his delight. His immediate reaction to the goal had been as reserved as would have been expected flrom a current Bayern Munich manager but then, seated between his friend and confidant Manel Estiarte and his father Valentin, he put his scarf over his mouth, got to his feet, and let out what appeared to be an exuberant “Gooool!”

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Messi ran the show against Manchester City

Facing him, in the season’s second league Clasico and the one that will surely decide the destination of the league title, is Cristiano Ronaldo who has gone in the opposite direction to Messi in the last three months. Ever since he stood up at the Balon d’Or ceremony in Zurich to  collect his third Golden Ball and announce that he was “coming after Messi” (who has four of the individual awards ) the pursuing has all been done by the Argentinian.

Ronaldo had raced to the 30-goals tally towards the end of last year while most top European strikers were yet to reach double figures. He had left Messi in his wake, too, and was at one point 12 goals clear of his nemesis. But a dramatic turnaround in 2015 means Messi now has two more league goals than Ronaldo, while the former Manchester United forward also has a sending off, a Copa del Rey exit, a derby day thrashing against Atletico Madrid, a birthday party controversy (the night after that defeat), and a spat with home supporters, to his name.

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Ronaldo has struggled recently after a ferocious start

That run-in with the Santiago Bernabeu, shuffling off straight down the tunnel after a win over Levante last week, has breathed new life back into the old story that Ronaldo might yet return to Old Trafford.

The snub for Real Madrid supporters came after he had shunned his own celebrating team-mates when Gareth Bale scored Real Madrid’s opening goal in the win over Levante. Ronaldo could be seen lamenting not having scored himself immediately before the goal, but was still seen to throw his arms in the air after Bale buried the rebound. It was a reminder of the Ronaldo that plays not for his team or his public, but just for himself and for the record books.

Ronaldo might not be too worried about being away from the Santiago Bernabue. Messi, likewise, will be glad that the game kicks off in the Nou Camp, where his name echoed around the 99,000-arena on Wednesday night as he almost single-handedly  destroyed Manchester City.

The communion between the masses and their messiah is stronger than ever and, if he leads them to victory, they will be four points clear, and with one hand on the title.

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How Messi eclipses Ronaldo in winning the big prizes

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A close look at the records of Messi and Ronaldo for their clubs show that while both have breathtaking goalscoring records Messi has won a lot more in terms of La Liga and Champions League titles

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