If you’re going to hit a milestone, and one that no one in your club’s illustrious history has ever before managed, best do it against your fiercest rivals.
Lionel Messi knows a perfect occasion when he sees one.
On April 23, 2017, at the age of 29 years, 304 days old, the Argentine genius reached 500 career goals for Barcelona, the only club Messi has ever played for at senior level.
And what better way to do it than with a dying-breath winner against the blaugrana’s nemesis, Real Madrid? Not good enough? Throw in the stage being the capital club’s home of Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, and it taking place in the most watched fixture in football history.
The two premier teams at the top of the Spanish league table, Real six points clear of Barca, with six games of the season remaining, and Messi set on ending a six-game goal scoring drought in El Clásico. For Real Madrid, this ‘666’ truly proved to be the Number of the Beast, who revealed himself on that Sunday in Spain in the form of a 5ft 6 ½ superstar from South America.
It was, however, first blood to Real Madrid, literally and figuratively. 20 minutes into the game Messi’s teeth collided with the elbow of defender Marcelo, leaving the forward down on the turf and bleeding from the mouth. Whether the brush of body parts proved to be the impetus for Messi to unleash has probably given Marcelo nightmares since.
Real’s Brazilian midfielder Casemiro scrambled the opener over the line in the 28th minute to give Zinedine Zidane’s side the initial advantage. It was short lived.
Firing back at criticism of that scoreless streak, Messi soon sliced and diced through the bewildered Madrid defence and mercilessly slotted the ball past keeper Keylor Navas for his 46th goal of the season and the goal that took his past Los Blancos’ legend Alfredo di Stefano for most goals scored in this Spanish championship fixture.
For another 45 minutes of on field action, however, the two teams couldn’t be separated, thanks in part to the staunch and superb Navas, before Ivan Rakitic stunned the Costa Rican keeper with a tremendous effort to give the visiting side the lead for the first time in the match.
Moments later, a straight red was received by Real Madrid’s chief bastard Sergio Ramos for the second season in a row, by the same referee Alejandro Hernández, Ramos’ dangerous sliding tackle once again leaving Messi eating grass.
With ten men and an 80,000 strong home crowd backing them, substitute James Rodriguez ignored their player deficit and produced a quality equaliser, five minutes from time.
Points shared? Messi had other ideas. 91:47 came the shot. At 91:48 the Real Madrid players bereft on the ground, the stadium silenced, Chamartín confused.
Not only had Messi sealed the win for Luis Enrique’s side in enemy territory, it meant the forward himself had extended his record as the very top-goalscorer in the fixture, setting a new benchmark with 23, five clear of di Stefano (as of April 2020, Messi now stands on 26).
Lionel also knows an opportunity for the perfect celebration when he sees one - how to revel in the misery of his opponents was illuminated with the immediate removal of his shirt and displaying his increasingly iconic number 10 in front of the riled - but no doubt begrudgingly admiring - Real supporters.
It had taken Messi 112 fewer games to reach 500 club goals than the man who will perpetually be on the other side of his coin, Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who had now made a swift exit down the Santiago Bernabéu tunnel after being unable to help his own side make the difference on this occasion and conceding the spotlight to his eternal antípalos.
Messi’s first of that half-tonne had come almost exactly 12 years earlier, on May 1, 2005 at the Camp Nou in a 2-0 La Liga win over Albacete Balompié. At 17 years and 331 days, he was the then-youngest goalscorer in Barcelona history. In the 2006/07 season, aged 19 years and 259 days old he then became the youngest to strike in an El Clásico, a record he held for 13 years. 25 goals in this particular fixture have followed.
These records stand as the mere tip of recognising this Mauna Kea of a man, who has dazed and dazzled the world over for the best part of the century so far. "I feel sorry for those who want to compete for Messi's throne because it's impossible, as this kid is unique," his then-manager Pep Guardiola said of the footballer, who was still only 24 at the time.
In the three years since the 3-2 Clásico, Messi has refused to stop. He just waved at that 500 as it passed him by. He’s a 30th Century footballer who simply decided to grace us with his presence on the pitch in the 21st.