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The Heart of Barcelona: A Tribute to Leo Messi and a Classic El Clásico

In this column, Xoel Càrdenas pays homage to Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona's stunning 3-2 last-second victory over Real Madrid in a classic El Clásico.

Real Madrid CF v FC Barcelona - La Liga Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

El Clásico is the greatest match in the world. Over 400 million people watched El Clásico and for the first time in years, we got a Clásico all football fans deserved — unless you're a Madridista.

Real Madrid came into the match in high spirits thanks to their elimination of Bayern Munich in the Champions League. FC Barcelona came into the match in poor form, as they were shut down and shut out against Juventus. With no Neymar for the match, it seemed as if it was all in Madrid's favor. But as most of you know, in a Clásico, all bets are off and on Sunday evening, we were all witnesses to a classic Clásico.

Real Madrid started in typical Madrid fashion: strong and threatening. Marc-Andre ter Stegen was kept on edge many times. Once Barcelona got into a rhythm, they did what they do: stay calm and try to pinpoint the moment to strike.

After James Rodriguez's equalizer late in the match, it feel like the match was going to end just like many have for FC Barcelona: pure disappointment after getting so close to victory. Honestly, it would have been fitting. With seconds to go, Barcelona was pinned back, and looked like it was all settled.

Then, the heart of FC Barcelona won the match.

The emotions that all of el Barcelonismo felt when Lionel Messi's curling shot when into the back of the net in the 92nd minute is indescribable. Why? Because it's a last-second winner, a Clásico winner, a potential Liga-saving winner, because it was Leo Messi's 500th goals in his Barça career, and because it showed once again that this club's heart and fight-to-the-end spirit can't be compared to any other club's, period.

Barcelona's 3-2 win over Real Madrid had everything. Blood, via Messi's face. Sweat, from the players. And tears — tears of joy from all of el Barcelonismo.

Let's talk about the players.

I agree with what BeIn Sports' Phil Schoen said during the television broadcast of the match: Ivan Rakitić has been a level down this past season and a half with Barcelona. But against Madrid, Rakitić was the Ivan of 2014-15, as he had a stellar performance on the night. His golazo in the 73rd minute to give Barça the lead was world class. I have to mention Sergio Busquets as well. The man was superb in the midfield.

Marc-Andre ter Stegen was at his best on the night. It may sound odd to say that a man who allowed two goals, including a late equalizer, was at his best. But let's be fair, both Real Madrid goals were not Ter Stegen's fault. Casemiro's goal was a fluke, in my opinion, and James' goal was due to poor Barcelona defending.

Ter Stegen made 12 saves on the night, which was the most of any FC Barcelona goalkeeper in over 13 La Liga seasons. Over and over, Madrid tested MAtS, and the German shined brilliantly while frustrating the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modrić, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos. Lastly, Ter Stegen completed 22 passes, which was 8 more than Cristiano made in the match.

While Barcelona had its good moments, it had plenty of bad as well. The overall defending wasn't great on the night, although, Samuel Umtiti had a solid match. I expected more out of Luis Súarez and his didn't come through, as his first touch was not there. I didn't expect much from Paco Alcácer, but his one close chance was a weak shot right into Keylor Navas' foot. Sergi Roberto has the great last run of the match, but him as a right back isn't working out and he needs to go back to midfield where he'd be most useful as a footballer.

Cristiano Ronaldo has stepped up in some big games for Real Madrid this season, there's no denying that. But on Sunday night, Cristiano was nowhere to be found. Perhaps his best chance was in the 67th minute when he missed a clear chance to put Los Blancos up. I'm not going to mock Ronaldo in this piece anymore, all I'll say is the obvious: Cristiano Ronaldo did not step up against Barcelona and it may cost his club the Liga title.

For the record, Keylor Navas was terrific on the night. Yes, he ate three goals, but how many near-Barcelona goals did Navas stop on the night? Answer: many. Marcelo was causing problems throughout the night and Marco Asensio showed maybe he's the better option on the pitch for Zinedine Zidane's team.

It wouldn't be fair to say that either team deserved to win this Clásico. It was a tight match and if it would've ended 2-2, we can't say Madrid didn't deserve a draw. Yes, Barcelona had a man advantage for many minutes late, but they didn't take advantage of that. Barça fell asleep on James' goal and it would've been typical 2016-17 FC Barcelona if the win had slipped out of their hands.

Thankfully, the team's heart won this match.

The fight of Sergi Roberto to use the last ounce of endurance he had left in him to make that run to lead the final charge. For one good moment, Andre Gomes made a good decision and did not send the ball into the middle of the box; instead, he waited for Jordi Alba to make the run. Finally, Alba made the right decision to send the ball back up top for Leo to blast in the golazo.

It seems like we do this every year. Leo Messi does something brilliant and we continue to build his legend even higher than before. And you know what, it's always merited and we'll continue to do this for many years to come.

On Sunday, Messi was like his shirt number: a 10. Early in the game, Messi took an elbow to the face from Marcelo. Leo was down, bloodied and hurt. But like any other true football warrior, Messi got up and continued to play, even while holding a tissue at his mouth to stop the bleeding.

It felt like Barcelona was going to struggle to find those dynamic runs without Neymar. But against Real Madrid, Leo Messi stepped up and made said moves that perhaps Neymar would have done in this match. I'm not saying Messi wasn't capable of doing said runs, it's just that Neymar has, for the most part, been the player who starts those runs this season. There's no doubt Messi steps his game up whenever it's a Clásico, and he knew he needed to influence the match more so with no Neymar on the night.

Messi weaved through the Madrid defense in the 33rd minute to equalize. A nice assist from Ivan Rakitić helped Leo find his way toward Keylor Navas' direction and put the ball in the back of the net.

Leo went through it all in this Clásico. But in the end, the heart — and greatness — of Messi led Barcelona to a win. After his game-winner, Leo took of his kit and displayed it to the Santiago Bernabeu crowd, as if he was saying, "You will remember my name."

Don't worry, Leo. You're a legend and no one will ever forget your name. As the old saying goes: Heroes are remembered, but Legends never die.

It's best when your club gets a solid "team win." But sometimes, individual performances are enough to get the win. Sometimes, it's just talent. Other times, it's pure luck. And sometimes, it's heart.

For FC Barcelona in El Clásico, they won the match because of heart — "y nada más."

In my previous column, I said FC Barcelona is for optimists. I'm still optimistic that Barcelona can win La Liga, but we'll see if Madrid slips up these next six matches.

This season has been filled with few highs and many lows for Barcelona. While this season may not be the one many of us imagined at the beginning of the season, the dramatic, last minute win over Real Madrid in El Clásico could be the highlight of the season. But what this win did is once again show the greatness of Lionel Messi and how he can carry this team in any match and will continue to do so until he hangs up his boots.

It's amazing to think that at nearly 30 years of age, Lionel Messi has already scored 500 goals for a club. You, the reader, need to continue to savor every match Lionel Messi plays in. Once Leo is done with football, the post-Messi era in football will arrive and the game will never be the same. It'll still be a beautiful game, but without Messi, the game will be less lovely.

Real Madrid: 2, Barcelona: 3

¿Hay Liga? Sí.

And the man to thank for the classic Clásico win is once again Lionel Messi.


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