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Seasons on the line for Atleti, Real

La Liga
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 By Sid Lowe

After saving Argentina, Lionel Messi must lead Barcelona over Atletico

The FC crew debate how much a World Cup should factor into Lionel Messi's standing among the greatest players of all time.

In La Plata, the capital of Argentina's Buenos Aires province, fans were waiting for one of the planet's great performers who, along with them, was waiting for the greatest of them all. The show must go on, just not yet -- not until they were sure that the show would go on the way it's supposed to.

The U2 concert in La Plata on Tuesday was delayed for almost two hours. Backstage at the Estadio Unico, U2 were watching Argentina against Ecuador in their final World Cup qualifying match. Fans in the stadium were doing the same, giant screens bringing them footage from Quito in Ecuador. When U2 finally appeared, Bono took the mic and declared: "God exists."

Argentina are surely glad that Lionel Messi exists. Messi has helped take Argentina to four tournament finals, including a World Cup (and you can probably argue about the need for the word "helped"). But that was never really enough, and this might just have been his greatest night, the most emblematic performance of them all.

Argentina were unbelievably on the verge of elimination; the World Cup was preparing to go on without them, and that, Messi himself admitted, would have been "mad." Argentina were, he said, "scared." You know what comes next: An hour and a half later, he had scored a hat trick. From discussed, debated, doubted and even dismissed, to a near deity. "The 'dwarf' took us to the World Cup," said Argentina star Angel Di Maria.

Bono offered thanks and so did everyone else. The cover of El Mundo Deportivo ran with "Thank God." Sport cheered: "God will go to the World Cup." And even Marca, Madrid-based and Madrid-centric, led on a line even more telling: "A Country Called Messi." On Wednesday they needed him more than ever before.

In Catalonia and all across Spain, for all the downright daftness of the divide and the "debate" that feeds off it and feeds it too, there have rarely been the kind of genuine doubts that lingered back home, still less the rejection. But no more -- for now, at least. In Quito, they went quiet.

U2 front man Bono saluted Lionel Messi following his match winning performance against Ecuador.

"Anyone who questions Messi now doesn't exist," insisted Mauricio Macri, the president of Argentina. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli insisted that doubting Messi is an act of "imbecility." He had always been a convert: As Sevilla coach, he had said, "Comparing anyone to Messi is like comparing a good cop to Batman."

There is not much new you can say about Messi -- most gave up long ago. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who as Barca manager coached Messi, offered useful advice when he insisted, "Don't write about him, watch him." But that Batman line was a nice try. Others tried too. Former Argentina defender Martin Demichelis called Messi "unearthly." Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano suggested he belongs to "everyone," a kind of world heritage; while many would disagree, the reaction outside of Argentina suggested there was something to that.

Former Barcelona teammate Neymar and current teammates Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta expressed happiness that the man who might pose their greatest threat will be at the World Cup. They're friends, but they spoke for many. What mattered most, though, was that Messi belonged to Argentina when he hadn't always, when there was resistance. "Argentina finally adopt Messi," ran a headline in AS.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," said Ole. "Thank God, thank Messi", said El Grafico. La Nacion claimed that his "genius" had taken Argentina to the World Cup, a line repeated in Clarin. They called him a "hope-making machine" -- "with Messi, no dream is impossible," La Gaceta claimed. Pagina 12 called him the Messiah, producing a mock-up of Messi as Christ. He was their saviour. Ole went for "Messi is Argentinian." This last bit was a more significant remark than it might suggest. It wasn't just a basic fact; for some, he didn't count somehow. But now they were saying what Marca were saying: He is Argentinian. More, he is Argentina.

He is Barcelona too, of course. The dependency may not be so intense, but it's there. He has spent more than half his life in Catalonia (and in the collective conscience in Argentina perhaps that has been part of the problem) and now he had to head back. There was little time and a long way to go back across the Atlantic.

Messi's heroics for Argentina made the nation love him again. Now Barca need his magic once more.

This break, the drama of Tuesday night, was a timely reminder of the importance of international football, a response to those who bemoan it, who would get rid of it, who think it just gets in the way and who complain about the FIFA virus, as if it is only the clubs who suffer at the hands of the country and not the other way around. (Yeah, try telling Wales that.) It was a reminder that it matters; look at Iceland, Egypt, the U.S. or Panama. Look at Argentina.

Yet it is also true that, like the rest, Messi had to get back. The attention soon returned to the clubs. Messi took a flight from Ecuador that stopped in Guadalupe to refuel, and in Paris to drop off Di Maria, before arriving at El Prat Airport in Barcelona. He had a game to get to.

It's not just any game, either. This is huge. A first visit to Atletico Madrid's new Wanda Metropolitano. Spain's "other" Clasico, a match that was always fun but has become important too, and revived (like so much else) by the Diego Simeone era. One which, although Atletico president Enrique Cerezo expressed his desire to the contrary, has an extra dimension now amid the Catalan question. The last game Barcelona played was behind closed doors; this will be in front of 68,000 fans in Madrid.

These two teams had shared four consecutive La Liga titles between them (three by Barca) until June. The league title that Atletico won in 2014, which may rank as the greatest achievement in the competition's history, was clinched on the final day of the season at Barcelona's Camp Nou, drawing a standing ovation from the fans who had just been denied the title. They have met in the Champions league (Atletico prevailed) and their league games have helped define championships. Barcelona have largely prevailed in those clashes, apart from that May afternoon when Diego Godín's goal gave Atlético their first league title in 18 years, the first anyone other than the Big Two had won in a decade.

It had reached the point when you doubted that anyone else would ever win the league again. There were no other contenders; now there are. Or are there? This is the first of those games that could shape the season.

Barcelona have not always impressed, but they have won every game, yet this test is real. Are they actually that good? Atlético, whose identity remains clear even as a transition begins with a new generation in a new home, allowing for optimism where there might have been anxiety, are nonetheless on edge a bit as they still seek consistency. They are six points behind league leaders Barcelona; they can't afford for that to extend to nine. Real Madrid, seven points behind Barca, can't really afford that either. They must stop Barcelona and that means stopping Messi.

"It is sometimes up to me to play the role of butcher," admitted Atletico defender Filipe Luis in an interview with El Mundo this week. "The thing is, to be completely honest, it is impossible to stop Messi without fouling him. If Messi runs at me with the ball and I am on my own, if I don't foul him, pull him or something strange happens, of 20 times I'm only going to take the ball off him once. I have to play with other weapons ... and at the end of it all he shakes your hand."

Filipe Luis, left, understands what it takes to stop Messi, but it doesn't always work.

Often, Messi has won. He has scored 27 times against Atletico, making them his favourite victim. Under Simeone, Atletico have controlled him better but not stopped him entirely. He scored 17 goals in 13 games against Atletico before Simeone; since his arrival, it is 10 goals in 21 games.

This season Messi is already way out in front for the Pichichi Trophy (given to the top goal scorer each La Liga season). He has scored 49 goals in 49 games in 2017, but this will be hard. Not only will he have Luis kicking at him, but there have been questions about the playing surface, suggestions that Atletico will leave the grass long and dry. Other weapons, to use Filipe's words. "I'm no gardener," Simeone said, "but if I go around to your house for dinner, we use your tablecloth."

Then there's the travel and the fatigue. Messi has played every minute of every game so far this season. Games immediately after international breaks often bring surprises, and Messi has travelled 30,050 kilometres (almost 17,000 miles) across the Atlantic and across time zones.

He's not the only one, of course; he's not even the player who has travelled the furthest. His Barca teammate, Suarez, has suffered a knee injury this season but was vital for Uruguay, scoring twice to take them to the World Cup; he travelled 30,270 kilometres (18,000 miles). Suarez's Uruguay teammates, Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez, embarked on virtually the same trip and will suit up for Atletico on Saturday. When the duo arrived at Barajas Airport in Madrid, Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann was waiting for them in the arrivals hall, mate in hand, wearing a Uruguay shirt. He came to welcome them home and congratulate them, but they had work to do, a game to get ready for. On Thursday night, they trained ... unlike Messi.

It is natural that Messi should be the focus, though, and not just because he always is or because he's the man who most changes games. It may end up guaranteeing that he will be anonymous on Saturday night, per Murphy's Law. After all, it is natural too that Messi might be the most affected. Reports suggested that after Argentina's first game, in which Messi provided countless unconsummated assists, he did something he never does: He locked himself away and thought, channelling everything into Quito, where they played at altitude. There may never, ever have been a game like it, even for him.

So much had happened and there was much to contemplate: institutional crisis, changes of coaches, changes of players, tension. The three consecutive finals, lost. Messi had retired from the national team and then he came back. He had not been embraced. He had watched chances slip by. He must have known how few were left given the relentlessness of time.

Argentina stood at the edge of the abyss, he knew. And, make no mistake, this was on him.

Diego Simeone feels Neymar's Barca exit may have been a blessing in disguise for the club.

In the end, that Marca headline was not far off. In the past year, only Messi has scored for Argentina; their second top scorer is "own goal." The pressure and responsibility were his, and they were intense. So was the explosion, the elation that followed it. Sampaoli talked about a country's responsibility to take a player to the tournament, the world upside down. And then, immediately, the realisation that he would travel home and have to play again. At least he did not depart depressed.

"It's good for Barcelona that Leo is happy," said Iniesta. "Everything that is good for him has a repercussion for us. Now we have to think about Atletico." But is that so easy? This is Atletico Madrid, the biggest game of the season in Spain so far, a first night at the Wanda, a big step for Barcelona, but even that could be a bit "so what" after what happened on Wednesday. And if the elation was intense, it makes sense to think that so too are the expectation and the exhaustion moving forward. "People want 20 goals a game from him," said Argentina keeper Sergio Romero. On Tuesday he got three. It would be natural for there to be a climb-down after all that. The fatigue is emotional as well as physical.

"We're not machines" is a favourite refrain of players even when it sometimes looks as if they are. Unlike machines, though, they can be inspired.

When Atletico hosted Barcelona at the Calderon in the autumn of 2015, it was similar: The first really big game, a match that could shape the season just after they had returned from international duty. Messi began on the bench that time. He came on in the second half. Quarter of an hour later, he had scored one and provided one. Barcelona won the match and won the league, a point ahead of Madrid and three ahead of Atletico. They're taking nothing for granted at Atletico.

"He is so good, so, soooo good, that he holds everything together, no matter what is happening around him," said Filipe Luis. "Messi is so good that he can take a mediocre team to the league."

He can take one to the World Cup, too.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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