Lionel Messi is the all-time leading goalscorer in the history of the iconic fixture that pairs Barcelona with eternal rivals Real Madrid. The latest installment of the most coveted game in La Liga takes place on Saturday evening and offers Lionel Messi the opportunity to encase his status with the Blaugrana.
Out of all of Lionel Messi's 26 El Clasico goals, few are more iconic than his late winner against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in April 2017. Ensuring a 3-2 victory for Barcelona at the home of their fiercest rivals, the goal was Lionel Messi's 500th for his club. It was a script more suited for Hollywood than La Liga.
Holding his jersey aloft, he embraced the fury of the Madridistas as bile poured down from the steep, packed cauldron of white. Cristiano Ronaldo watched on as an empty and devastated figure, drained by defeat and fuelled with envy as the attentions of the world focused on his nemesis instead of him.
Few will dismiss the claim that Lionel Messi is Barcelona's greatest-ever player, and there is a strong case for him to be the greatest of all-time, period. However, the mutual love between him and his club has brought with it an emotional detachment that came to a head last summer with his request to leave.
Lionel Messi and a damaged relationship
For the first time, the fans began to turn on their hero. His actions hurt them as they believed their bond could never be broken in this way. As difficult as it was for the fans to accept, it was equally as difficult for Lionel Messi. While he remains at the club for now, the damage may yet be irreparable.
The pandemic has kept supporters away from the Camp Nou while the saga of Lionel Messi's future was played out in the media. His future at the club remains in the balance, but the appointment of Ronald Koeman as manager has proved more successful than many believed it would, and a change at the very top of the club with the return of Joan Laporte will only encourage Lionel Messi to stay.
Lionel Messi will turn 34 in the summer, and while expectations of him have naturally eased, he is still capable of producing the same moments of magic and brilliance that will ultimately define his career and status in the game. Although they may not be produced as consistently now, the possibility alone means his presence on the field remains the central focus of the world.
On Saturday evening, Lionel Messi has the opportunity to put his contractual issues aside and rekindle the love between him, his club and his fans when Barcelona visit the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium looking to avenge the 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid earlier in the season. If Lionel Messi can produce a moment of magic just once more this season, then this is the night to do it.
How Lionel Messi became a figurehead for a movement
A win will take Barcelona back to the top of La Liga for 24 hours at least. Competing against Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid for the title is a microcosm of the Catalan people and their fight for independence from the Spanish Government. Defeating the duo from the Spanish capital is a moral victory for the movement as much as it is a sign of sporting strength.
Lionel Messi is irreplaceable to both Barcelona and the spirit of Catalonia. The Argentine is a figurehead of his adopted city and it is difficult to imagine him ever representing a different club in the same way. There will be no shortage of suitors for his signature, but even Lionel Messi himself knows that a significant part of his spirit will remain at the Camp Nou even if he does decide to leave.
Although the tension between Lionel Messi, the club and the fans has eased in recent months through performances and results on the field, the relationship has not healed. This is what makes this latest El Clasico so poignant in the career of Lionel Messi, as this is the game that can define his eternal connection with the club.
Lionel Messi understands what El Clasico means to his club and the fixture has brought the very best out of him in the past. However, his commitment to the club remains on trial, and if he is determined to repair the rift that his actions last summer have caused, then he must produce now more than ever before.
Lionel Messi and Barcelona simply need each other more this evening than they ever have before.