There were flashes of the old Lionel Messi in the first half of the Clasico on Saturday.
Casemiro was booked for trying to scythe him down. Nacho should have been booked for actually scything him down, and it was his pass over the top for Jordi Alba that sent the left-back clear to cross for Ansu Fati to equalise.
He might even have put Barcelona ahead having spun Sergio Ramos one way and then the other only for Thibaut Courtois to save at his near post.
But the flame only burned for 45 minutes. It flickered in the second half, and was almost extinguished by Ramos’ penalty that put Real Madrid ahead and shut the game down as a contest such is Barcelona’s currently failure to respond when things go against them.
Everyone still looks to Messi, but Messi just looks back wondering who will play Robin to his Batman. There were no candidates in the last 20 minutes at the Camp Nou on Saturday despite Ronald Koeman having flooded his team with attacking substitutes.
Messi’s body language late-on when Ousmane Dembele wasted one opening spoke volumes. The introduction of the French winger, Franciso Trincao and Antoine Griezmann on 81 minutes was almost a case of too much too late. A change should have been made earlier, and the three forwards made for five in an attack – an uncoordinated mess.
When the whistle blew at full-time Messi had touched the ball 98 times. That was more than anyone else but he had ended the game without a goal.
He has now failed to score in his last six Clasicos. Not since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid has he hit the back of the net in his biggest club fixture. The personal duel also fuelled him and is maybe another reason for the relative decline.
Those 515 minutes without a goal against Barcelona have come despite nineteen shots. It’s not for the want of trying. A drop in his incredible statistics was always likely as his physical numbers went down. But there are other factors.
Messi has always been helped by having decoys – players around him that terrified and occupied the opposition to the extent that space would be opened up for him – now those decoys are no longer there, or at least no longer anywhere near as effective.
Where once he was flanked by Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o and then by Pedro and David Villa, before teaming up with Neymar and Luis Suarez, he now finds himself in a moveable-feast front four that included on Saturday two 17-year-olds and Philippe Coutinho. The latter was below par against Real Madrid and is now out injured for the next three weeks.
The kids will come good. Ansu Fati is already joint La Liga top scorer on four goals despite not turning 18 until next weekend. And Pedri will have better games than his first Clasico, but they can’t yet compete with what might have been if Messi had got his way in the transfer market.
The idea that Barcelona could re-sign Neymar or bring in his national team-mate Lautaro Martinez evaporated in the financial crisis and so he finds himself having to produce more of the magic on his own, and a time in his career when he can no longer go it alone in the way he used to.
It was a feature of last season that he was dropping deeper than ever to get on the ball, and yet is further than ever from being that player who can slalom through an entire team running from the halfway line in the process.
The degree to which the transfer request and the ultimately aborted transfer to Manchester City has affected him into the season is debatable.
The mind of the genius usually works in the moment – unburdened by past failures or any imagined future shortcomings. Those close to him say he has lost little sleep over the famous Burofax.
Neither has it been held against him. In fact with Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu quitting on Tuesday, Messi has been credited with the assist in some quarters.
When the new permanent president comes in he will want to get Messi to sign a new contract.
It then will remain to be seen whether his appetite is still there to put pen to paper in Catalonia or if he feels that to squeeze another season out of his career he needs the jolt of a new challenge.
This is something which would put him back on the Manchester City agenda providing Pep Guardiola stays at the club into next season.
Before that next chapter is written, this season still offers him all to play for. But he knows from watching Bayern Munich destroy Atletico Madrid almost as effectively as they had thrashed Barcelona how hard it will be for the team to get back to the top in Europe, especially when supremacy at home is currently also beyond them.