Zidane’s Plan To Limit Lionel Messi Backfires Spectacularly

Lionel Messi turned in another legendary performance despite the shadow of Mateo Kovacic.

When the starting lineups for Saturday’s El Clasico were announced, there was really only one surprise in the 22 players named for battle: Zinedine Zidane’s decision to drop Isco to the bench in favor of Mateo Kovacic. For many, Isco has been Real’s best player over the past year — a footballer of sublime skill, technique and playmaking ability — while Kovacic’s inclusion meant one thing only: Lionel Messi limitation.

The industrious Croatian set about shadowing Messi around the Bernabeu pitch, a dangerous tactic when considering Messi’s free range of movement and the wealth of other attacking options at Barca’s disposal. To be fair to Zidane, the opening half hour seemed to justify his decision. 

Real probably should’ve taken the lead at some point in game’s opening period, but they failed to capitalize on their early dominance. Barcelona, and Messi especially, are never going to be held down for that long, and that proved to be the case here. 

Messi came to life 30 minutes in with a wonderfully curved ball over the top of Real’s backline, springing Paulinho in on goal. His effort was saved by Keylor Navas, but Barca had awakened. 

Messi again provided for Paulinho before halftime, but the Brazilian’s header was again smartly saved by the Costa Rican international. But Messi’s influence was growing as he popped up in all areas of Real’s half.  

Barcelona got the go-ahead goal in the 54th minute with Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez making it happen, but studio analysts were quick to point out how Kovacic spent the entirety of the move behind the play, forgoing decisive action in favor of shadowing Messi.

Messi was then instrumental in Barcelona’s second and third goals. For the second, it was his pass that triggered the Blaugrana’s frantic assault, culminating in Dani Carvajal’s blatant red card. 

He then did the honors from the spot, scoring his 15th goal in 17 La Liga matches. 

Eight minutes later, Kovacic was withdrawn for Gareth Bale, but the damage had already been done. Messi threatened for the remainder of the match before providing the assist on Barca’s third, a great run followed by a cutback to Aleix Vidal. It was Messi’s sixth assist of the league campaign.

In the end, the numbers speak for themselves. 

Questions will be asked of Zidane’s decision given how the second half played out, but with Messi playing like this, it’s difficult to say what the Frenchman could’ve done. Isco would’ve been a brave decision to fight fire with fire, but Messi’s fire is a raging inferno that’s once again engulfed and laid waste to the Bernabeu.