A moment of brilliance from Lionel Messi changed the course of Sunday's game between Barcelona and Valencia. Los Che boast the second best away record in the Primera Liga and for 55 minutes they contained the champions, defending well and passing with pace. They succeeded in silencing the huge 90,000 crowd; in making them nervous and filling them with doubt that Barca were losing momentum to Real in the title race. So quiet was the stadium that you could hear the cries of the players. Great expectations rather than audience participation has become the unfortunate current hallmark of Camp Nou.
Real's midweek European exit had lifted Catalan spirits, but that was Europe and as more than one Barca player has stated recently, their first priority is to win the league. Extra silverware is a bonus. The game between first and third was eagerly anticipated. It was also the first time a Barca match has kicked off during daylight this season as television usually dictates later evening starts, meaning that many ties finish at midnight.
Valencia were without David Villa, their captain and the league's second top scorer. Valencia minus Villa is like Paris without the Eiffel Tower. There are other attractions, but they pale when compared to the main one. One such draw is Miguel, the replacement captain who was fast on his way to becoming the best right-back in the world three years ago until injury, poor form and personal problems hampered the progress of the 52-cap Portuguese defender.
That honour probably belongs to Daniel Alves, who, despite not being a regular in the Brazil side, now poses a greater threat than any defender in world football with his surging runs and relentless energy. But even Alves could not break down Valencia, who passed with delicate precision. Only Messi could change the game. Nobody else was good enough. After 56 minutes, the little Argentine weaved past three opponents before hitting the ball low past the goalkeeper Cesar. Stung by the spark of Messi and outclassed by his brilliance, Valencia turned cynical. Hedwiges Maduro saw red and his side fell apart as Nikola Zigic missed a one-on-one chance every mediocre schoolboy striker should put away.
Messi made it a hat-trick with two goals in the last 10 minutes, his third after receiving a pass from Thierry Henry. The France captain, on as a substitute and hoping to salvage some honour and minutes from a dreadful season so far, appeared invigorated in spite of his lack of recent opportunities. Pep Guardiola, the coach banished to the stands after being sent off last week, covered his mouth as he spoke so that television cameras could not decipher his words. Around him, the crowd finally woke from their near silent slumber, chanting Ole! with every Barca touch.
As the fans filed out of the stadium, they listened to Real's game at struggling Valladolid. Many watched in cafes close by as the whites won 4-1 with a goal from Cristiano Ronaldo and three from Gonzalo Higuain. That victory could not come quickly enough for a club still in shock after their Champions League elimination, but next to bottom Valladolid are falling apart and have not won all year. The two giants are level at the top on 65 points, 18 points clear of Valencia in third. That gap does nothing for the credibility of the Primera Liga, but then statistically Barca or Real have both amassed a record number of points for this stage of the season. It may be a predictable two-horse race, but it is still impossible to pick the eventual winner.