Messi has to find his feet

Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi (right) crashes to the ground after a challenge by Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic during the Champions League quarter-final second-leg clash at the Camp Nou. The match ended 0-0, leaving Barca with just two wins fr
Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi (right) crashes to the ground after a challenge by Juventus midfielder Miralem Pjanic during the Champions League quarter-final second-leg clash at the Camp Nou. The match ended 0-0, leaving Barca with just two wins from their last five games.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Barcelona need their star man back to his best amid Neymar's absence in the Clasico

MADRID • Lionel Messi requires two more goals to reach 500 for Barcelona and will have his sights set on achieving the milestone against great rivals Real Madrid in tomorrow's Clasico.

It is almost 12 years to the day since the diminutive Argentinian netted his first goal, against Albacete at the Camp Nou.

And there could not be a better time to bring up the magic number, particularly in a week that began with his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo netting a record 100th Champions League goal.

Barca, who trail Real by three points and have played a game more, are under even more pressure than usual after Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final elimination by Juventus.

The sight of Messi flat out with blood gushing from his face after a heavy tackle from Miralem Pjanic seemed to sum up his club's recent fortunes.

Barca lacked the hunger, fight or determination to break down a stubborn opponent. What perhaps was most striking as they meekly exited Europe was that even the mercurial Argentinian appeared drained of his superpowers against a resilient backline.

In complete contrast to Ronaldo, who almost single-handily dragged Real through against Bayern Munich 24 hours earlier, the five-time World Player of the Year looked dejected as the game drew to its inevitable conclusion.

However, former team-mate Ronaldinho is backing Messi to return to his best.

"It's a wonderful story. He's on the verge of 500 goals for the club and my pass set up the first of them," Ronaldinho said. "He's a great man. It's wonderful to see everything he's achieved - and he still has lots left to give."

The Brazilian's words will be put to the test tomorrow as, in the absence of the suspended Neymar, the focus on Messi will be even more intense.

The forward will need to be at his brilliant best if Barca are to overcome Zinedine Zidane's in-form side, who are unbeaten in their last 12 matches.

With just two wins in their past five games, Barca's season is in danger of fizzling out. Defeat by Real will leave them with just the Copa del Rey to play for. But Barca coach Luis Enrique insisted after their 3-0 aggregate defeat by Juventus that his side would be ready to bounce straight back up.

"It will be difficult to lift my players up after this, but it will be easy to motivate them," he said. "We have the best stimulus that any Barcelona fan could ask for which is that we play against our eternal rival. There's no better place to go than the Bernabeu."

Although Messi is LaLiga's top scorer this season with 29 goals, he has not netted in his past six appearances against Real, dating back to his 2014 hat-trick at the Bernabeu.

In the same period, Ronaldo has scored three in five Clasicos.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline 'Messi has to find his feet'. Print Edition | Subscribe