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Lionel Messi set to tie all-time El Clasico appearance record – but will Saturday’s LaLiga clash against Real Madrid be his last?

Lionel Messi set to tie all-time El Clasico appearance record – but will Saturday’s LaLiga clash against Real Madrid be his last?
Lionel Messi is set to make his 45th 'El Clasico' appearance when resurgent LaLiga superpowers Barcelona meet arch-rivals Real Madrid clash on Saturday evening. But should football fans be prepared for this to be his swansong?

For a while, it seemed as if this season's LaLiga title race was all over bar the shouting. Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid had built an impressive lead at the summit of the table which had threatened to arrest Barcelona and Real Madrid's stranglehold on the league in recent seasons, particularly as both powerhouses struggled for momentum for a variety of reasons. 

In Barcelona's case, the decline seemed the most apparent. Long gone appeared the days of their tiki-taka excellence which led to them being the most the successful European side of the last decade or more, replaced instead by a changing-of-the-guard Champions League whitewashing last summer courtesy of Bayern Munich.

Rancor was felt both in the boardroom and on the pitch. Barcelona's greatest ever player, Argentina magician Messi, began to cast glances elsewhere for the first time in his career and pushed for a move to the likes of the cash-rich Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City in a feud which threatened to escape the Camp Nou and finds its conclusion in a courtroom.

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New boss Ronald Koeman also struggled early to imprint his philosophies early in what threatened to be a further decay of the great club's legacy.

But as Barcelona and Messi threatened to degenerate into an Ozymandias-like ruined effigy of what they once were, things began to change.

Atletico's lead has been eroded from 12 points in December to a single point today, meaning that Saturday's 'El Clasico' winner could usurp Simeone's side in the standings – although Real Madrid would require a margin of victory of more than four goals to do so.

What has changed? Well, in Barcelona's case at least, one needs only to look to Messi. After failing to impress for much of 2020, his form this year has rivals anyone in Europe's top five leagues.

His last 13 games in Barca colors have resulted in 16 goals and seven assists as part of a run crucial to his team's late title push, as well as their advancement to next Sunday's Copa del Rey final.

Messi will tie the record set by Madrid skipper Sergio Ramos, who won't play on Saturday, for the most El Clasico appearances (45) in a game which was earmarked earlier in the campaign, during his wantaway spell, as his potential final appearance for Barcelona in Spanish football's most heated rivalry.

However, the re-election of Joan Laporta to the Barcelona presidency – the man who guided the club through their most successful era under Pep Guardiola – has coincided with the sharp upturn in form, and suggested that Messi will be convinced to stay in what would be the delivery of one of Laporta's central campaign promises.

Real Madrid, too, enter the game in a rich vein of form. They are unbeaten since January as coach Zinedine Zidane continues to wring impressive performances out of the club's galaxy of veteran stars such as Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. Ramos's absence could well be felt, though, in such a pivotal fixture.

The timing of both clubs' comebacks couldn't have come at a better time for either. In Messi's case, it is thought that his future at the club is directly linked to their ability to prove that they can still win trophies, despite the club being saddled with a debt which obstructs their ability to manoeuvre in the transfer market. 

Saturday's game will be crucial to that. If Barcelona can nudge their noses in front in the hunt for another title, one suspects that it could well be key to persuading the man who has authored so much of their success to stick around for just a little bit longer – and mean that his record-breaking 'El Clasico' appearance tally won't end here.

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