Lionel Messi and Cristiano Continue Eternal Duel, As Usual Suspects Power Most Unusual ‘Clasico’

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Continue Eternal Duel, As Usual Suspects Power Most Unusual 'Clasico'Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi ensured that the 222nd meeting between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid went off without a hitch.

Despite taking place in unusual circumstances, Sunday’s “clasico” played itself out as it usually does: Two teams, led by a shining two-goal star, shared two points. If it all sounds familiar, it’s because it is.

But there was a something different about this game. The lead-up to kickoff was shrouded in overtones of geopolitical conflict — that is, more than usual. Spain’s economic crisis has led Catalonia (the Spanish region Barcelona embodies) to once again call for independence. Regional elections will be held on Nov. 25, and if Artur Mas retains the Catalan presidency, he will request a referendum on “Independencia,” according to the Independent.

Naturally, Camp Nou, that bastion of Catalan nationalism where Barcelona plays its home games, was briefly turned into a giant mosaic of the Catalan flag by fans up holding red, yellow and blue placards before kickoff. Meanwhile, the presence of Israeli soldier and sports columnist Gilad Shalit dragged brand Barcelona into the Israel-Palestine conflict, making for the most politically charged clasico since 1975.

With all this going on, there was a distinct air of civility between the pride of Catalonia and the club that sports the Spanish crown on its crest. Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho tried to downplay the game in the lead-up, saying it was only worth three points, but he also went out of his way to compliment Barcelona on the quality of its squad.

At the same time, Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets hailed no less than seven of Real Madrid’s eleven starters in his team’s pregame news conference.

Events on the field fit a familiar mold. Both teams entertained a global audience, playing with pride, power and precision. Real Madrid’s Ronaldo scored first. Messi tied things eight minutes later. He buried a stunning free-kick in the second half to give Barcelona the lead. Ronaldo canceled it out with a lethal finish just five minutes later.

There was Pepe‘s predictable yellow card. Like always, both teams flopped and over-dramatized from time to time. There were also missed penalty appeals, both real and perceived. In short, it was the tit-for-tat, blow-for-blow clasico we’ve come to know in recent years.

But the frost which covers the two teams’ relationship on the field melted at the final whistle. No missles were thrown, Messi shook hands with Real Madrid’s iconic captain Iker Casillas, and there was no postgame controversy. Both sides accepted that the 2-2 score was an accurate reflection the contest.

“My opinion is that the result was right when you look at the match,” Football Espana reports Mourinho said. “It was a good game, that was played right up until the last minute.”

Later, the Catalan emissary Busquets confirmed the just nature of the soccer gods.

“The feeling is that the result is reflective of the game,” he reportedly told Canal Plus. “At times, we were better, but it was a very even game.”

The two superstars, Ronaldo and Messi, were extraordinary, as they so often are on this stage.

Ronaldo has scored 160 goals in 155 games since joining Real Madrid in 2009, and he seems to write a new chapter in the annals of the storied club with each passing game. Sunday’s was the sixth straight clasico in which he has scored. The streak sets a new record, passing the Chilean great Ivan Zamorano.

Once a step-over-happy winger, Ronaldo converted to a frighteningly effective forward many moons ago. But the Portuguese star showed the world a new dimension Sunday. First, there was the old celebration telling 98,000 Barcelona fans to “sit down, calm down” following his first goal. Then, in the 65th minute, he attempted an overhead kick, but missed the ball completely. He sprained his shoulder on the play, and the Camp Nou crowed mocked his effort. Ronaldo scored his second a minute later, flashing that cheeky grin and waving two fingers in the air in celebration. His transformation from diva to warrior-diva is now complete.

Messi, who has scored 169 goals in 155 club games since 2009, performed his iconic goal celebration — the one with two fingers in the air that’s been immortalized in wax — on two occasions. Sunday’s goals bring his clasico total to 17, which passes Raul and ties him with the legendary Alfredo di Stefano for the all-time record. It’s only a matter of time before “The Atomic Flea” breaks another record.

However, these weren’t stereotypical Messi goals, where he weaves his way through the defense and finishes with jaw-dropping excellence. He netted his first by popping up in the Madrid box, reacting quickest to a loose ball and popping it in from close range. He sublimely curled home a freekick from 25 yards out — one he earned when Xabi Alonso dragged him down in desperation (as has happened so many times before) — for the second.

Messi also spent much of the game playing deeper than he has done in seasons past. When Real had the ball, he was often spotted on the wide right channel, diligently marking Real Madrid fullback Marcelo whenever the Brazilian ventured forward. When Barcelona had possession, Messi often cut inside, trying to make plays and keep the attack flowing rather than becoming the focal point of the attack. First-year manager Tito Villanova has tweaked Barcelona’s tactics to place more responsibility on Messi and make the most of the 25-year-old’s all-around ability.

There have been 14 clasicos in the last two years, including four in a span of a few weeks in 2011. Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano called that stretch a “terrible” time, saying such familiarity makes it difficult to spot opponents’ weaknesses.

This 222nd clasico, in which two bitter foes battled to a sweet conclusion, proved a bunch of old sayings to be true, while revealing new truths at the same time. Like Eric Mercury said, “What’s Usual Seems Natural,” but, at the same time, anything can happen on any given day, and it usually does.

Have a question for Marcus Kwesi O’Mard? Send it to him via Twitter at @NESNsoccer, NESN Soccer’s Facebook page or send it here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.

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