Lionel Messi brought up his half-century last weekend.
50 career hat-tricks represents a suitably incomprehensible return for a player of surreal ability.
Barcelona’s resident extraterrestrial bagged his first ever professional hat-trick against Real Madrid (no big deal) and with back-to-back El Clasico thrill-rides ahead of us, we thought we’d revisit his first spine-tingling triple.
March 10th, 2007.
Messi’s third season hurtled towards a dramatic conclusion with Barcelona and Real Madrid locked in a tense title race despite both teams dropping points with unusual regularity.
Even by El Clasico’s standards, the pre-match hype was hyperbolic.
Fabio Capello’s men struck first through Ruud van Nistelrooy to dampen the Nou Camp crowd’s spirits.
But the lead didn’t last long.
Messi was afforded generous space on the edge of the box in the 11th minute and made no mistake from close range…
A routine finish for most top-level players but his composure was key.
It’s important to remember Messi was 19 years old at the time, long hair and all, and the fixture was billed as the most important event in the world.
You would forgive a teenager if he abandoned his training and blasted it straight at Iker Casillas — not Messi though, never Messi.
Los Blancos then profited from a debatable penalty, Van Nistelrooy doubling his tally from 12 yards just two minutes after Barca’s equaliser.
The hosts piled on the pressure in response as Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Deco picked holes in Real’s defence.
Capello’s troops retreated deeper and deeper until the sheer volume of Barca players in the box paid dividends…
Fans of symmetry will note Messi’s technique in striking the bouncing ball was not too dissimilar to what he exhibited for his volley as part of his most recent hat-trick vs Sevilla.
Again, it would have been a golden chance squandered if he hadn’t scored.
But much of Messi’s brilliance is rooted in his avoidance of glaring errors in favour of a relentless, punishing consistency.
Barcelona were reduced to ten men in the 45th minute when Oleguer was shown a second yellow.
Real didn’t take advantage of their extra man until midway through the second half when Sergio Ramos (also flaunting shoulder-length hair) expertly flicked a Guti free-kick into the far corner.
The home fans said their prayers as the clock ticked past 90 minutes.
A goal down and a man down, something special was required.
Pressured in midfield, Ronaldinho produced a line-breaking pass into Messi’s feet and then, well, see for yourself…
In the blink of an eye both Real’s centre-backs, Ivan Helguera and Ramos, looked up at Messi from the turf.
This was one of the first times the Argentine sensation dribbled from right to left before finishing back across the keeper — a goal he has repeated hundreds of times since.
This performance foreshadowed Barca’s dependence on Messi.
Three times they went behind to their fiercest rivals and three times their left-footed genius rescued them.
It was to be Ronaldinho’s last proper season with Barcelona and injuries plagued his 2007/08 campaign.
Messi was not to know this at the time of his Clasico hat-trick, but it retrospect it was a definite changing of the guard.
The look on the Brazilian’s face after Messi’s third goal is so telling.
It’s one of intense relief, yet tinged with a resigned acceptance.
This kid will surpass me, it says. He will surpass all of us.
People knew of Messi’s potential prior to March 2007.
But his display that night was a clear indicator he would not waste it.
Here was a boy who would become a man and redefine expectation.
A player who would go on to celebrate 49 more hat-tricks in the next twelve years.
That first one will always be one of the most special because it cemented an otherworldy talent’s status as a future great.
To this day, it gives you chills.