Lionel Messi not winning the World Cup with Argentina would be unfair, according to goalkeeper Oscar Ustari.

Messi has won everything on offer during his time as a Barcelona player – the Champions League, LaLiga, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup, Copa del Rey and Supercopa de Espana.

However, the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is yet to taste senior success in an Argentina jersey following a runners-up finish at the 2014 World Cup, having also reached back-to-back Copa America finals in 2015 and 2016.

A two-time Argentina international, Pachuca goalkeeper Ustari warned against doubting captain Messi – the country's all-time leading goalscorer.

"I have no doubt that if Messi isn't world champion, football will be unfair," Ustari told Radio Mitre.

"Doubting Messi is nonsense. Things can go well or not, but I can tell you that I have seen him crying like a child because of what was happening in the national team. It's very difficult to be in his shoes.

"I remember that in the 2011 Copa America [Argentina were eliminated by Uruguay in the quarter-finals] I was recovering from my knee and, when they lost, I went to see Messi at the Ezeiza venue and I saw him like I had never seen him before, devastated."

Lionel Messi has been thanked by a Barcelona hospital after making a donation to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has caused havoc across the globe and subsequently brought the sporting world to a standstill, with more than 418,000 confirmed cases.

With sports largely unable to continue, many clubs and leagues are making decisions to safeguard their financial solvency, with lay-offs and salary deductions becoming more common.

But some high-profile individuals are sacrificing their own money to help the cause, with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola confirmed to have donated €1million to the Angel Soler Daniel Foundation.

Messi – a six-time Ballon d'Or winner – has made a contribution of his own to the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona.

A Tweet from the clinic on Tuesday read: "Leo Messi made a donation to fight against COVID-19 in the clinic.

"Thank you very much, Leo, for your support and your commitment."

Spain is the second worst-affected European nation with almost 40,000 people diagnosed with the virus, including over 2,800 deaths.

Top of the table, sack your head coach, lose El Clasico, return to the top of the table.

It is hard to argue with where Barcelona stand as LaLIga's season pauses amid the coronavirus pandemic, although their means of staying on course for a ninth title in 12 seasons have often been unconvincing.

Here, we take a look back at the Opta numbers behind a campaign where Quique Setien has replaced Ernesto Valverde in the Camp Nou hot seat and many of the old certainties seem not to exist anymore.

Well, apart from one man's enduring brilliance.

WORST BARCA TEAM SINCE BEFORE GUARDIOLA

Barcelona's points haul of 58 from 27 games is enough for a two-point lead over Real Madrid in second but it is their worst return at this stage since 2007-08, when they had 54 points in the last knockings of Frank Rijkaard's tenure

The Blaugrana's 63 goals in 27 outings is also their lowest since that season, when they had 52 at this juncture and finished a distant third on 67 points.

Pep Guardiola took the reins for 2008-09, completed a clean sweep of trophies and Barca have never been outside the top two since.

That run is unlikely to change this time around but concerns over the longer-term direction of travel are understandable – even if making Valverde the first LaLiga boss to lose his job despite being top at the midway point since Radomir Antic made way for Leo Beenhakker at Real Madrid in 1991-92 left a sour taste.

Perhaps prophetically, Johan Cruyff's Barcelona won the title that year.

MAJESTIC MESSI

Unperturbed by these struggles and even speculation over his own future, Lionel Messi has continued on his merry way.

The six-time Ballon d'Or winner is the top scorer in LaLiga this season with 19 goals and his 12 assists also lead the divisional statistics.

Borussia Dortmund and England star Jadon Sancho is the only other player in Europe's big five leagues with double figures for both, with 14 goals and 15 assists.

For now, Messi also has another marker over the man to whom he will always be compared. His 438 domestic league goals put him one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo on 437, although Messi's have arrived in 474 appearances as opposed to 540.

The Argentina international now has 420 LaLiga starts to his name and has surpassed the previous highest by a non-Spanish player, former Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna defender Donato (415).

THE BARCELONA WAY

Setien's commitment to a short passing, high pressing style earned him the nod of the Barcelona board after Valverde's unseemly departure.

Although the high-octane thrills of his best Real Betis sides have largely been absent, he did put down an important marker in his first game.

During the 1-0 win over Granada, Barca completed 1,002 passes – only the third time they or any other team have done so in a LaLiga contest.

The 1,046 recorded by Guardiola's men against Levante in May 2011 remains the highest, with his successor Tito Villanova overseeing 1,035 versus the same opponents in 1,035.

However, hoarding possession does not provide the security it once did.

Barcelona have conceded 31 goals in LaLiga so far this term, amounting to a higher goals per game against than in any of the previous nine season (1.15).

In fact, in five of those, Gerard Pique and his defensive colleagues had let in fewer than 31 at the end of the campaign.

Easier to score against, not as prolific and yet still on course for the title usefully sums up the peculiarity of Barcelona in 2019-20 at this point.

Lionel Messi's contract is said to be a priority for Barcelona, who have also received good news on the Neymar front.

Messi has a deal until 2021 with the LaLiga giants, but can leave for free at the end of the season.

If Barca can get that done, it looks like Neymar also wants a return to Camp Nou.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI CONTRACT A BARCELONA PRIORITY AS NEYMAR SAYS YES

A renewal for Messi is a prime concern for Barcelona, according to AS.

Messi is top of the to-do list for Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu despite economic problems facing several clubs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, the cover of Sport says Neymar wants to return to Barca and is ready to put pressure on Paris Saint-Germain to get his wish.

ROUND-UP

- According to Le 10 Sport, PSG have not offered Neymar a new deal despite talk they would. The Brazil international is contracted until 2022 at the Ligue 1 champions.

- Chelsea desperately want Jadon Sancho. The Evening Standard reports the Premier League club are ready to pay £120million (€129.9m) for the Borussia Dortmund star.

- Inter have apparently sent a warning to Barcelona over Lautaro Martinez. Sport reports the Serie A giants want cash only for the forward, ruling out a deal that also involves a player.

- Paris Saint-Germain are setting their sights on Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. Le 10 sport says Donnarumma, who is out of contract next year, is a key target for PSG.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread disruption with the global sporting schedule, but you can still get your fix if you know where to look.

Whether you are in self-isolation or practicing social distancing, in a way it has become easier than ever to watch sport as you pass the time.

Some of the biggest leagues and governing bodies have reacted to the global crisis by providing free access to a back catalogue of content.

We run down the best places to look if you're missing sport.

 

FIFA OPENS UP ARCHIVES

From Saturday, FIFA are making full match replays of over 30 games from World Cup and Women's World Cup history available.

The matches appear set to be available until football is back up and running in most countries.

 

A SWISH OFFER FROM THE NBA

Basketball fans rejoice. The wait for the playoffs may go on longer than anticipated, but the NBA is offering free access to the premium League Pass subscription service until April 22.

You can view full replays and highlights from all games played in the 2019-20 season, as well as classic matches.

 

NO LONGER BEHIND GRIDIRON BARS

If the NFL is more your thing, then why not use their Game Pass until the end of May?

You can watch full-length games or condensed versions, while the 'Hard Knocks' and 'A Football Life' series are available on demand, too.

 

MORE FROM THE STATES

Maybe ice hockey is what you are missing most. If so, the NHL.tv is free to all until April 30.

There is also the MLB Vault YouTube channel, which will provide you with hours of classic baseball games.

 

MISSING MESSI?

If you are in Europe, there is the option to watch Rakuten TV's 'Matchday - Inside FC Barcelona' and 'MessiCirque' documentaries without charge. (They also have over 150 films available on a free channel.)

Until the Premier League returns, Manchester City has opened the doors to the CITY+ subscription service. All you need to do is sign up for long-form, in-house content, historic games and full match replays.

 

FOR THE GAMERS OUT THERE...

If re-runs don't sate your appetite to help fill the hours, you can try out the full version of the Football Manager 2020 computer game via the Steam app until 15:00 GMT on March 25.

Former Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino hopes to return to Newell's Old Boys, preferably with Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.

Pochettino began his playing career at Newell's, where he emerged from the Argentine club's youth system in 1989 before moving to LaLiga outfit Espanyol in 1994.

The future of Pochettino continues to be speculated after he was sacked by Tottenham in November – linked to the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Pochettino, though, revealed his desire to make a Newell's comeback, alongside countryman and six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi – who also spent his youth playing for Newell's.

"I hope to return to the club one day," the 48-year-old Pochettino told Radio del Plata.

"I can still wait, preferably it will be in 10 years. With [Lionel] Messi."

Another Argentinian, Lautaro Martinez, is also making headlines following his exploits for Serie A outfit Inter.

Martinez is reportedly attracting interest from LaLiga champions Barca, who are eyeing a long-term replacement for Luis Suarez.

"Lautaro Martinez is one of the best strikers in the world," Pochettino added.

"It's not just for what he does now, but for what his potential means going forward. If you start looking at hitmen for the big clubs, clearly his name has to be in there."

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit Spain, it had been an uneasy season for Barcelona, despite the Blaugrana sitting top of LaLiga by two points when the division's suspension was confirmed.

It remains to be seen whether the 2019-20 season resumes at all – it is not outside the realms of possibility the campaign is voided across Europe, even if the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) insists it will be finished.

If it were to be nulled, one gets the feeling few associated with Barcelona would be especially angry to see the back of 2019-20 – even if it means the title is no longer attainable, as strange as that sounds.

With the help of Opta data, we've taken a look back at Barcelona's campaign and, despite the issues surrounding the club, Lionel Messi unsurprisingly still comes out well…

BARCA IN 2019-20

58 - Barca have 58 points at the 27-match mark, making it their worst haul at this point of the season since 2007-08 – the campaign before Pep Guardiola took charge – when they had 54 at this stage. Frank Rijkaard was in charge at the time.

1 - Ernesto Valverde became the first LaLiga coach since Radomir Antic in 1991-92 to be dismissed in the same season he was top of the table during Spain's winter break. Johan Cruyff's Barca won the title that year.

63 - Barca's haul of 63 goals is also the fewest they have managed after 27 matches since netting 52 in 2007-08, when they finished third.

5 - Five defeats have already been inflicted upon Barca this season, more than in any of the previous 11 LaLiga seasons.

MESSI SHOULDERS THE BURDEN

31 - With 19 goals, Messi is LaLiga's top scorer this season. But that's by no means all he has contributed – the Argentinian dynamo has also provided 12 assists in LaLiga, more than any other player.

2 - Indeed, Messi is one of only two players to reach double figures for both goals and assists across Europe's top five leagues – the other being Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho (G:14, A:15).

438 - Messi became the leading all-time goalscorer across Europe's top five leagues as well, having taken his tally to 438 from 474 matches. His eternal rival Cristiano Ronaldo remains on his heels, however. The Portugal icon has 437 from 540 outings.

THE REST

1,002 - Quique Setien joined Barca with a reputation for his obsession for possession. So, it's perhaps unsurprising that in his LaLiga debut with the club, he became only the third coach since records began in 2005-06 to oversee a team that attempted over 1,000 passes in a single match. Against Granada, Barca tried 1,002.

3 - Ansu Fati became the third-youngest goal-scorer in LaLiga history (16 years, 304 days) when he scored against Osasuna in August. Only Fabrice Olinga (16 years, 98 days) and Iker Muniain (16 years, 289 days) were younger when they opened their respective accounts.

The coronavirus pandemic continued to wreak havoc on the sporting calendar on Saturday with more major events and competitions being disrupted.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 rapidly spreading across the globe, it has resulted in the postponement of competitions worldwide as governments attempt to combat the pandemic.

A small number of events still went ahead, but sports stars, teams and indeed supporters were otherwise left to find other means of entertainment.

With the number of confirmed cases worldwide now totalling over 155,000, we round up all the latest news and updates.

 

Germany's prestige friendly with Italy later this month became the latest football fixture to bite the dust, with the majority of upcoming international matches having now been wiped out.

More major organisations have halted all footballing activities until a later date, including Qatar, Morocco and Egypt.

A small number of competitions, most notably the A-League, Russian Premier League and Mexico's Liga MX, did manage to go ahead as planned.

Indeed, NRL games also avoided the cut, as did a handful of Super Rugby matches before an indefinite ban was put in place later in the day.

Another competition to fall was Australia's one-day international series against New Zealand, which was already being played behind closed doors.

With New Zealand's government introducing strict protocols to attempt to slow the spread of the virus, the Black Caps – along with Super Rugby side Highlanders – returned home from Australia and Argentina respectively in order to beat the new restrictions, which will mean any new arrival to the country, even if they are a citizen, has to self-isolate for 14 days.

With the top-four tiers of English football being shelved until at least early April, there was plenty of focus on the National League as six games were given the green light.

There was some controversy in Argentina as River Plate's Copa Superliga clash with Atletico Tucuman was suspended after the home side refused to open their stadium.

Independiente's tie with Velez Sarsfield was played out in full, albeit behind closed doors, with the hosts claiming a 1-0 victory.

In Italy, Napoli urged their supporters to sing from their balconies in unison as Fiorentina's Patrick Cutrone and two more Sampdoria players tested positive for COVID-19.

Manchester City's Benjamin Mendy revealed a negative test result after recently self-isolating, but Carlo Ancelotti and Angelo Ogbonna questioned the Premier League's handling of the outbreak, while Jordan Pickford denied reports he is self-isolating.

West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady, meanwhile, claimed the competition should be "void" – a suggestion Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher quickly dismissed.

The lack of football did not stop certain clubs from keeping supporters entertained, though, with LaLiga side Leganes posting live updates of a fictitious match against Real Valladolid, which they won 2-1.

Perhaps inspired by their Spanish counterparts, Southampton got Manchester City involved in an online game of noughts and crosses to help fill the void.

The downtime also gave football stars a chance to recuperate, with Sergio Ramos and Alexis Sanchez among those to post images of their extra-curricular activities.

Others, such as Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson and FIFA president Gianni Infantino, opted to use social media to educate their followers on how to properly wash their hands, while Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi used his profile to echo the sentiments of Cristiano Ronaldo in calling for people to follow the guidance of health organisations.

As Ronaldo and Jurgen Klopp were praised by the World Health Organisation for "protecting people from coronavirus", former United States president Barack Obama hailed a host of NBA stars – including Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson – for donating large amounts to help support arena staff during the league's hiatus.

UFC superstar Conor McGregor labelled the pandemic "a stupid f****** virus", but later moved to clarify his aunt did not die after contracting the disease after previously suggesting as such.

And in more positive news, Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe revealed his country still plan for the 2020 Olympic Games to go ahead in Tokyo, starting in late July.

The International Olympic Committee will have the final say, but ABE is confident the Games will be staged "without problem".

Lionel Messi echoed the sentiments of Cristiano Ronaldo in calling for people to follow the guidance of health organisations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With LaLiga suspended for at least the next two matchdays, Messi and his Barcelona team-mates do not know when their title challenge will resume.

Barcelona are top of the table, two points clear of Real Madrid whose players have been told to self-isolate for 15 days after a member of the club's basketball team tested positive for COVID-19.

After Ronaldo, Jurgen Klopp, Paul Pogba and other leading names from the football world spoke out to encourage the public to take precautions for their health, Messi followed suit with a post on his Instagram account.

He said: "These are complicated days for everyone.

"We live worried about what is happening and we want to help [by] putting ourselves in the place of those who are having the worst of it, either because it directly affected them or their family and friends, or because they are working on the front line to combat it in hospitals and health centres.

"I want to send a lot of strength to all of them."

Messi has scored 19 goals in 22 LaLiga appearances this season, most recently netting the winner in Barcelona's 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad on March 7.

The Blaugrana were scheduled to play Mallorca on Sunday ahead of a midweek clash with Napoli in the Champions League, both of which have been postponed.

Messi added: "Health must always come first. It is an exceptional moment and you must follow the instructions of both health organisations and public authorities.

"Only in this way can we combat it effectively."

Diego Simeone compared Jan Oblak to Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi after the goalkeeper's exploits as Atletico Madrid eliminated Champions League holders Liverpool.

Oblak produced a man-of-the-match display with a number of important saves in Atletico's stunning 3-2 extra-time victory over Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday.

Liverpool were on top for much of the last-16 second leg but they could not move clear of Atletico or get the better of Oblak as the visitors secured a 4-2 aggregate triumph thanks to Marcos Llorente's brace and Alvaro Morata's late goal.

Regarded as one of the world's best goalkeepers, Oblak earned high praise from Atletico head coach Simeone post-match.

"We have a goalkeeper who is the best in the world, no doubt," Simeone said. "I have been saying that for some time.

"It's like Barcelona who have Messi. He decides games with his attacking play; Oblak resolves them with his saves."

Llorente came off the bench to replace a frustrated Diego Costa and Simeone added: "Llorente revolutionised the team.

"I'm very happy for the team and the club. It was a historic match against an extraordinary opponent with great intensity and a beautiful stadium.

"They pushed and held, without us ever moving away from our plan and with everyone's effort we succeeded.

"It gives me an enormous joy because, although it seems simple, it's not simple to win."

Josip Ilicic smashed a couple of records as Atalanta surged into their first Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday.

Ilicic became the first player to score four goals in a Champions League knockout away game as high-flying Atalanta defeated Valencia 4-3.

The 32-year-old attacker also became the oldest player to score a hat-trick away from home in the Champions League – his stunning haul of five goals across two legs helping Atalanta complete an 8-4 aggregate triumph.

Ilicic – the jewel in Atalanta's crown – continues to take Italy and Europe by storm this season, but how does he stack up against Juventus superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona's Lionel Messi domestically and abroad?

We take a look at his 2019-20 Serie A and Champions League numbers using Opta stats.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE/LEAGUE

Games played
Ilicic: 7/21
Ronaldo: 7/22
Messi: 6/22

Goals
Ilicic: 5/15
Ronaldo: 2/21
Messi: 2/19

Penalties
Ilicic: 2/0
Ronaldo: 0/7
Messi: 0/3

Mins/Goal
Ilicic: 103.2/99.47
Ronaldo: 311/92.62
Messi: 240.5/99.47

Shot Conversion Rate (ex. Blocks)
Ilicic: 45.45/26.79
Ronaldo: 9.09/22.58
Messi: 10.53/23.75

Hat-tricks
Ilicic: 1/1
Ronaldo: 0/1
Messi: 0/3

Four or More Goals (inc. Hat-tricks)
Ilicic: 1/0
Ronaldo: 0/0
Messi: 0/1

Big Chance Conversion percentage
Ilicic: 80/70.59
Ronaldo: 66.67/68.18
Messi: 40/42.86

Assists
Ilicic: 0/5
Ronaldo: 0/3
Messi: 3/12

Dribbles Completed
Ilicic: 21/55
Ronaldo: 14/40
Messi: 47/118

Big Chance Created
Ilicic: 3/13
Ronaldo: 0/6
Messi: 7/22

Barcelona and Argentina superstar Lionel Messi is no longer a phenomenon as Hugo Gatti criticised the six-time Ballon d'Or winner.

Messi scored four goals in a 5-0 LaLiga rout of Eibar last month but the Barca captain has failed to find the back of the net in six of his past seven matches.

The 32-year-old attacker struggled to make an impact in the 2-0 El Clasico defeat to Real Madrid last time out and former Argentina goalkeeper Gatti took aim at Messi.

"I don't care if they criticise me in Argentina," Gatti said on El Chiringuito. "I'm very Argentinian and Messi is a phenomenon, but he's not a phenomenon now.

"They treat him wrong because they big him up and big him up and treat him wrong. He gets used to it and walks more on the pitch. He has to be better.

"Cristiano [Ronaldo] and him are the two best. Messi has to be better, he's got used to playing at a weary rhythm, walking and those that know football think the same.

"Take off, kid. You have to play well. When there's a player like Messi, like it was with Maradona and Pele, and his team-mates always give the ball to him to win the game.

"They spoil the team and they don't put everything they have into it. The team get used to giving him the ball and not anyone else."

Messi has scored 18 LaLiga goals for Barca this season, and 23 across all competitions.

Lionel Messi's lean spell in front of goal is not causing Quique Setien to panic, with the Barcelona coach insisting "it could happen to anyone".

The usually prolific Messi has failed to score in six of his last seven games and was a peripheral figure in Sunday's 2-0 Clasico loss to Real Madrid.

That uncharacteristically unproductive run of form for Messi has coincided with Barca losing top spot in LaLiga, being knocked out of the Copa del Rey and being held to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Napoli.

However, speaking ahead of Saturday's home match with Real Sociedad, Setien claimed to be entirely unconcerned by Messi's apparent downturn.

"I don't care that he didn't score recently," said Setien. "If he scored it would be better, but it has never bothered me.

"It could happen to Leo or anyone. He is having chances and that is the important thing, that chances are generated. 

"He has been scoring goals for 14 years, if he now has a period in which he scores less it is not important."

Real Madrid did not deserve their 2-0 El Clasico victory over Barcelona, according to Guillermo Amor.

Madrid leapfrogged Barca atop the LaLiga table thanks to second-half goals from Vinicius Junior and substitute Mariano Diaz on Sunday.

Vinicius opened the scoring in the 71st minute before Mariano sealed the win in the second minute of stoppage time at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid moved a point clear in the league standings but Barca director Amor told Movistar: "They pushed up and they pressed us. Their idea was to stop the game. They pressed and created chances.

"It proved costly for us, but I don't think they deserved the win. We were very dominant, they hit us quickly."

Amor added: "If we consider the first half then I think it was a very good performance. Very good. We had the game under control and had chances, but missed them.

"If you forgive a team like Real Madrid they'll have their chances. Once they scored they saw they could win and were encouraged."

It was a quiet evening for Barca captain and superstar Lionel Messi in the Spanish capital, where the six-time Ballon d'Or winner struggled to make an impact.

"He was good," Amor said. "He was great in the first half. He created, played and played.

"But when you lose, everything seems negative. We weren't bad though. We had a great first half and were the better team. But then things went crazy and we lost control."

Real Madrid went into Sunday's El Clasico fully aware that defeat could have proven ruinous to their season, leaving a five-point gap at the LaLiga summit after they suffered a massive midweek blow in the Champions League.

Zinedine Zidane and Madrid were tactically outclassed in their own stadium on Wednesday, with Manchester City coming away from the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with a potentially vital 2-1 win.

Pep Guardiola exposed their weaknesses with a switch of formation and system to focus on troubling Madrid behind their attack-minded full-backs – chiefly with Gabriel Jesus on the left. It proved decisive.

Barca coach Quique Setien confirmed in his pre-match news conference that he met with City boss Guardiola after that match, acknowledging there were elements of City's set-up that Barca would look to expose, aware they could "come in handy".

But there's little doubt Zidane learned his lesson, and his tweaks inspired Madrid's 2-0 Clasico win.

ZIZOU GETS IT RIGHT

He set Madrid up proactively with two holding midfielders, and Vinicius Junior and Federico Valverde out wide, the latter two sat deep off the ball to essentially form a flat midfield.

The lung-busting Valverde's presence on the right ensured Jordi Alba had little luck in attack and plenty to think about at the back.

Pragmatic? Perhaps, but Madrid's formation undoubtedly contributed to limiting Barca's supply of chances, with Messi kept uncharacteristically quiet.

Toni Kroos' restoration to the starting XI after missing out against City was arguably the real key for Madrid, though.

KROOS CONTROL

The German's exclusion in midweek came as something of a shock and without him Madrid's overall pass completion was 86.5 per cent, and that increased to 88.2 per cent with him. Although minor in those terms, every little helps in matches of fine margins.

Against City, Madrid rarely looked in control and their move construction from midfield when transitioning was rather scattergun, Kroos' composure and vision obviously missed.

Upon his return, Kroos barely put a foot wrong all match. Suddenly Madrid seemed far more effective at picking their way through a press, as evidenced by the numerous counter-attacks they were able to launch on Sunday.

Kroos was accurate with 99 per cent of his passes and then played the decisive ball for Vinicius to put Madrid ahead, slipping the Brazilian into the left side of the box and he beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen with a little help from a Gerard Pique deflection.

MESSI FAILS TO SLICE THROUGH MADRID

Like Kroos, Messi was also tidy in possession, hitting his mark with 95 per cent of his passes. But he laid on only a single goal-scoring chance, while he was thwarted by Thibaut Courtois for his most presentable opportunity in the first half.

Messi set a new record for Clasico appearances by a Barca player – it was set up for a fittingly devastating performance to put one hand on the title.

But Barca's talisman simply failed to instigate effectively against Madrid's packed midfield, potentially leading to questions about his fitness after he was spotted seemingly limping earlier in the day.

And therein lies Barca's biggest problem: if Messi fails to turn the screw, they have no one else capable to rising to that level.

With Cristiano Ronaldo watching on in the stands, Messi's magic was in disappointingly short supply – but masterful Kroos validated Zidane's decision to recall him by steering Madrid to a potentially season-defining victory as they returned to LaLiga's summit.

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