As Barcelona prepare to travel to Real Madrid this weekend, ESPN FC takes a look back at one of Lionel Messi’s greatest Clasico moments.
Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro was the holder of the Ballon d’Or, Take That were top of the UK singles charts with Shine and George W. Bush was the president of the United States.
Meanwhile, a floppy-haired teenager was collecting nicknames in Barcelona. His Barca B teammates had dubbed him el mudo (the mute one), others knew him as la pulga (the flea) and journalists were queuing up to write about the umpteenth “New Diego Maradona.”
Lionel Messi had made his Barcelona debut in 2005 and soon after became the Catalan club’s youngest ever scorer — a record since taken by Bojan Krkic — but in 2007 not everyone knew the heights this short Argentine kid was going to hit.
No one could have predicted the extent of what was about to unravel over the next decade, but Real Madrid got a glimpse into the future when Messi, playing in an attack alongside Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, starred in an unforgettable Clasico.
The meeting between Barca and Madrid at Camp Nou in March 2007 was actually billed as the poorest Clasico in years by the local press. Both sides were reeling from being knocked out of the Champions League in the round-of-16, they were in a three-way title shootout with Sevilla and both managers, Frank Rijkaard and Fabio Capello, were under pressure.
Barca surprised by going for a back three, which Mundo Deportivo would later say was a mistake.
Madrid, meanwhile, included a young Sergio Ramos and an even younger Gonzalo Higuain in their side. There was also a start for 21-year-old left-back Miguel Torres at left-back … up against Messi.
Barcelona: Valdes; Thuram, Oleguer, Puyol (c); Xavi, Iniesta, Marquez (Gudjohnsen), Deco (Belletti); Messi, Eto’o (Sylvinho), Ronaldinho.
Real Madrid: Casillas; Salgado, Ramos, Helguera, Torres; Gago, Guti (de la Red), Diarra; Raul (c) (Robinho), Van Nistelrooy, Higuain.
Six goals, three in the first 15 minutes, one penalty, one red card and the birth of a great. The poorest Clasico in years? No chance.
Somehow, a defence which included Carles Puyol and Lilian Thuram was all over the place. And Madrid made them pay, with Ruud van Nistelrooy taking advantage of the latter’s awful clearance to stroke home from the edge of the box. Advantage Los Blancos after five minutes.
It was all level after 11 minutes, though, with Messi, as he would do so often in the coming years, darting in from the left and curling around Iker Casillas. But for every moment of Messi magic there was a moment of Barca clumsiness at the other end. This time Oleguer Presas’ challenge on Guti gifted Madrid a penalty. Van Nistelrooy scored his second of the night from the penalty spot. There were just 13 minutes on the clock.
Messi then scored another equaliser in the 28th minute, lashing into the roof of the net after Casillas saved from Ronaldinho, before Oleguer was sent off on the stroke of half time and Ramos headed Madrid into a 73rd-minute lead.
Man down and a goal down, game up, right? Or not.
“Messi kept going in the second half with his devilish speed, but hardly any teammates followed him,” Javier Gascon wrote in Mundo Deportivo. “If Barca had shown in recent weeks that they are struggling physically, they all looked dead here with 10 men. All of them? Not quite. You can never say that with Messi on the pitch, who combined art, anger and power to answer Madrid for a third time on his great night.”
Messi’s third goal came in stoppage time and was perhaps the pick of the three. He ghosted past Ivan Helguera and rifled an unstoppable finish across Casillas. Point won. Point made. They were his first goals against Madrid and he became the first player to hit a Clasico treble in 12 years. The New Diego Maradonas were about to become the New Lionel Messis.
“Messi, Messi, Messi!” was the Mundo Deportivo cover the following morning (inside they called him a superhero). And the Diario Sport cover. And it was also, almost exclusively, what the 97,823 supporters at Camp Nou were singing at full time when they weren’t jeering the officials. “It was the only name they sang all night,” Mundo Deportivo reported.
It was another Messi masterclass witnessed by Madrid boss Capello, too. He was in charge of Juventus in 2005 when the Argentine had first shown glimpses of his potential in the Joan Gamper Trophy — he’d even tried to sign him on loan afterwards.
“Like Ronaldinho, Messi has that much quality that he’s capable of damaging you at any moment,” the Italian coach said after the game.
For Messi, it was a case of ticking off something he’d been wanting to do.
“It was a special game,” he mumbled. “I’d played twice against Madrid before, both times at the Bernabeu, and I hadn’t been able to find the net. It was a score I had to settle and today, fortunately, I played, scored three times and managed to settle it.”
What happened next?
Perhaps the only surprise is that Messi’s performance didn’t prove the catalyst for Barca to go on and win La Liga that season. Instead, they missed out on top spot on the final day, with Madrid claiming the title courtesy of their superior head-to-head record with both sides level on points.
However, the emergence of the floppy-haired teen — who’s been through a few other looks since — has since proved the spark for the most successful decade in the club’s history.
Barca won six of the next 10 league titles which followed, in addition to three Champions Leagues, five Copa del Reys, five Spanish Super Cups, three European Super Cups and three Club World Cups. In addition to what he’d already won with the club, Messi has now won 30 trophies, is the club’s top-ever goal scorer (525 and counting) and third in the all-time appearance list (607), behind only Xavi and Andres Iniesta. And he’s still only 30.
Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s also dominated the Ballon d’Or, winning it in five of the last 10 years. Which leaves us at the point where if you remember Cannavaro lifting the sought after golden ball, you’re almost showing your age.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.