By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
Lionel Messi took the headlines once more on Sunday in becoming Barcelona’s greatest ever goalscorer as Barcelona ripped Osasuna apart and sent a huge statement to Real Madrid ahead of next weekend’s Clasico crunch.
After defeat to Valladolid last week had seen them fall four points behind the Blancos at the head of La Liga, Barca needed a convincing result to silence some of the doubters. And the Argentine master ensured they got exactly that, bagging a hat-trick in a sensational 7-0 victory at Camp Nou.
The three goals took the little master past Paulino Alcantara’s mark of 369 goals in competitive and non-competitive fixtures, but the timing could also not have been more appropriate just seven days before one of the biggest Clasico fixtures in recent memory.
|MATCH FACTS | Barca 7-0 Osasuna
It was Messi – with the help of Alexis Sanchez – who got the party started, turning home the Chilean’s low cross in the 18th minute after the visitors had the temerity to take the game to Barca to begin with. Alexis added another from Jordi Alba’s centre to stake a claim for a starting shirt at the Santiago Bernabeu next week before Andres Iniesta’s missile of a left-foot shot ended the game as a contest.
Thereafter it was all about the Argentine. He surpassed Alcantara’s mark in the 63rd minute, playing a one-two with Iniesta before holding off Jordan Loties and firing past Andres Fernandez. He added goal number 371 to ensure another match ball after Dani Alves had got in behind the Osasuna backline.
By that time Cristian Tello had hit a wonderful fifth and Pedro would make it seven in injury-time, but Messi’s milestone was the undoubted highlight of the afternoon. He now has 31 goals in a season shorn by injury. Anyone who claims he is not at his best would do well to seek the opinion of the Rojillos back line.
His post-match comments will have been as reassuring as his performance too, insisting that speculation over his future - sparked by reports of a contract dispute - is wide of the mark.
"I want to continue in the Barcelona shirt," Messi told TV3. "My intention is to retire at this club. I am happy."
He may very well not be at the top form of two years ago, but he now looks back to being his instrumental self, and Barca could not have asked for a better build-up to next Sunday’s make-or-break visit to the Bernabeu. None of Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas or Neymar made an appearance at Camp Nou, but Messi ensured that they were able to put their feet up in anticipation of Gerardo Martino’s biggest game yet as Blaugrana coach.
The achievements of Barcelona in recent times have been such that Martino is expected to face the chop if he doesn’t deliver either the Champions League or La Liga trophy come May. Defeat to Real Madrid next week will make the latter of those a distant dream, while many see the Catalans as outsiders for the European title thanks to the continued consistency of Bayern Munich.
But one thing that Barca have in their corner is arguably the greatest player in 21st century football. Another starring show for Messi next Sunday could well see the Spanish title race come alive once more.
Real Madrid have been warned … 371 times.