Messi warms up for El Clasico with sublime quadruple

Posted by Francesc Tomas

Barcelona achieved a comfortable 5-1 win against Osasuna at the Camp Nou in Matchday 21 of La Liga. Lionel Messi (four goals) and Pedro Rodriguez scored for the Blaugrana, who enjoyed 73 percent of possession and attempted 19 shots, nine on target and one to the post.

Osasuna hadn't scored in their past nine visits to the Camp Nou and were defeated 8-0 in their last match. Despite that, the visitors started strong, forcing the Blaugranas to start their runs from deeper than usual due to their opponent's pressure. They were able to battle for some time during the first half but Barcelona went on to win comfortably after that.

The main talking point beforehand was the return of Victor Valdes to the Camp Nou for the first time since he announced his controversial decision to leave Barcelona at the end of his contract.

Fortunately for all involved, Cules didn't hesitate to give the Catalan goalkeeper a warm welcome and chant his name throughout the game, a clear reward for his efforts to defend the Blaugrana goal the past 10 seasons. The fact the home crowd has been able to overlook Victor's terrible timing and praised him for his dedication on the pitch instead showed a great degree of maturity.

Player Ratings (0-10; 10=best)

Victor Valdes (6) -- A decent display despite being in the media spotlight all week.

Dani Alves (8) -- Crossed for Pedro's goal, his fourth assist in his past three matches. Slowly but surely returning to his former best, definitely influenced by the increased challenge of Montoya and Adriano for the starting right back spot.

Carles Puyol (6) -- Led the Blaugrana back line with his courage, good positioning and brave tackles.

Javier Mascherano (7) -- Largely unchallenged but reacted effectively whenever needed.

Adriano (6) -- Hardly tested defensively, joined attack with ease. Assisted Messi for his fourth with a fantastic ball, one of his very few accurate crosses of the game.

Sergio Busquets (7) -- Looked comfortable when in possession, always looked for the simplest, quickest pass to keep the game flowing; 12 defensive interceptions.

Xavi Hernandez (8) -- Commanded the Barcelona midfield with his innate vision. Assisted Messi for the opening goal after nutmegging his marker.

Thiago Alcantara (7) -- A very professional performance from an up-and-coming youngster who looks much more confident and settled by the minute. He has truly been a great addition to the team in recent weeks.

David Villa (7) -- Assisted Messi for his third with a well-timed through pass. Desperately unlucky to not add his name to the score sheet after seeing his efforts denied by the Osasuna keeper in at least three occasions.

Lionel Messi (10) -- Man of the Match -- Legendary, sublime, unreal. Makes the impossible look easy with master classes every three days. Four shots on target, four goals. Wriggled his way into the goal to score Barcelona's first, smashed a penalty for his second, dribbled the keeper for his third, found the only available space to get the final touch for his fourth. Another La Liga all-time record beaten: Scoring in 11 consecutive matches, with 19 goals in that time.

Pedro Rodriguez (7) -- Found the net again after dropping into the right place at the right time. Constantly running from the wings and opening up spaces for others.

Substitutes: Cesc Fabregas (6), Alexis Sanchez (5), Alex Song (6)

El Clasico preview

If you look at the raw numbers, there is little doubt that Barcelona have been better than Real Madrid this season, with the Blaugrana sitting at the top of La Liga with a mind-blowing 15 points advantage over their arch rivals heading into the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals at the Bernabeu on Wednesday.

Since the arrival of Tito Vilanova, the Catalans have moved into a more direct system where scoring prolifically has taken priority over the more controlled, everlasting possessions under Pep Guardiola.

This variation is also obvious in numbers, with the Blaugranas scoring 100 and conceding 37 goals in just 34 matches or, in other words, netting an average of 2.97 goals and allowing 1.09 -- visibly different from the 2.57 scored and 0.72 conceded in the previous four seasons.

I personally feel that, despite the many trophies won and the somehow romantic aura around the Pep Team, this evolution was necessary as most rivals had found success by simply parking the bus and hoping for quick counterattacks whenever possible.

Having said all of the above, Barcelona would be incredibly foolish to underestimate the power of Real Madrid, as the quality of their players remains untouched despite their adversities.

After a season full of internal battles at club level, criticising his players in front of the media and, most importantly -- below-par results -- Jose Mourinho faces this clash in a dangerous position.

It's no secret that many Real Madrid players, fans and even board members would like to see the Portuguese manager leave so the club can regain its former prestige at the institutional level, tired of his desire to constantly create unnecessary conflict.

A loss to the Catalans in the Copa semifinals could be the excuse Florentino Perez needs to get rid of the manager who has won his club one Liga, one Copa and one Spanish Supercopa since 2010 -- especially considering the president's need to please his fans in order to get re-elected this summer.

From a more sporting point of view, it can be argued that Barcelona could be favourites due to the absences of Iker Casillas and Pepe (injured) and Fabio Coentrao, Angel Di Maria and Sergio Ramos (banned) but, to be honest, the Bernabeu fans will surely ensure the home advantage compensates for whatever players may be missing.

The record-breaking Messi, the on-form Cristiano Ronaldo, the magical Andres Iniesta, the deadly Karim Benzema … El Clasico is a special game players from both teams use as a chance to prove themselves in front of the eyes of millions of fans around the world.

Time to sit back and enjoy the most exciting rivalry in Spanish football. Personally, I can't wait to see what this next chapter may bring.

P.S. On a related note, Barcelona B showed the club's first team the way after beating Real Madrid B 3-1 at the Mini Estadi in front of a sold-out, 16,000-strong home crowd. Let's hope the professionals can follow their example Wednesday!

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