MADRID, SPAIN – Given Barcelona's current 15 point advantage over Real Madrid in the La Liga table, and Wednesday's looming Copa Clásico first leg between the two Spanish giants, few expected much in the league this weekend. Both of the giants fielded weakened sides against weak opponents - except for the inclusion of two very bold-faced names.
Guess what? In a remarkable day of Spanish soccer, those bold faced names, none other than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, put on blistering shows just hours apart, setting the stage for what now looks to be a rip-roaring encounter Wednesday night at the Bernabeu. When the day was over, it was hard not to ask if the duo's personal rivalry has hit new heights, with Ronaldo first drawing a line in the sand - only to see Messi leap right over it.
Ronaldo started the show by netting a 'perfect' hat-trick inside ten minutes against Getafe at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. The first was drilled with his left-foot across Getafe keeper Miguel Moyá, the second was a flashing far post-header and the third a penalty, duly struck to the net with his right boot.
It was 19th hat-trick for Madrid in less than four seasons in La Liga. He now has 179 goals in 176 matches in all competitions for Los Blancos and 100 at the Bernabeu in only 87 games. This term alone he has scored 21 times in 20 La Liga appearances.
Nothing special, the Portuguese national men's team captain suggested, when speaking after the game.
"I am happy about [the goals], but my task is to keep doing what I have been doing and giving my best for this club," Ronaldo said. "I want to beat my own records, be better than last year."
Then, a few hours later and 350 miles away, Messi took on the challenge against Osasuna at the Camp Nou. With less than an hour gone he had his own hat-trick. But even with the points secure against a deflated team with just ten men, and a Clásico looming, there was no easing off. Ronaldo's treble was topped when the Argentine touched home an Adriano Correia cross for his fourth.
The numbers are staggering: This was Messi's eleventh straight Primera División game with at least a goal. Only two other La Liga teams (Madrid and Atletico ) have scored more in the league than Messi has on his own. He now has a phenomenal 33 goals in 21 La Liga games and 44 in all competitions this season for Barca. And the capper is that he is now only the eighth player in history to reach 200 La Liga goals, and the youngest ever by over four years.
Asked how many goals he might score this season, Messi deflected the question as usual.
"The most important thing was to win," Messi said. "We came out as we always do, and the game went well for us."
At this point it is worth recalling that until two seasons ago, Madrid's Hugo Sánchez held the La Liga season record total with 38. Set back in 1989-90, that tally lasted two decades. Then in 2010-11 Ronaldo bagged 41. Twelve months later Messi obliterated his rival's mark with 50. Both players could well break that total this season.
While Messi - and increasingly Ronaldo too - are always careful to state that personal records are not as important as team trophies, and that they do not see the other as a personal individual rival, few really believe that to be the case. Each is clearly driving the other to greater and greater heights.
Asked by journalists after Sunday's game if Messi's four goal 'poker' had been motivated by Ronaldo's earlier hat-trick, stand-in coach Jordi Roura admitted that could be the case.
"Maybe Cristiano motivates him, but I do not think so," Roura said. "He has an immeasurable motivation himself. He always wants to score, whenever he can."
Messi may have an easier time than usual on Wednesday due to a mix of injuries and suspension in Madrid's back-line. First-choice goalkeeper Iker Casillas, plus regulars Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão are all unavailable. Of manager Jose Mourinho's preferred big-game defence, only Álvaro Arbeloa is available, and he could play out of position at left-back.
The Special One has to decide whether to throw new goalkeeper Diego López straight into the team, while on-loan Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien may be needed at right-back. Not that Ronaldo is looking for any excuses.
"We will be missing a number of players, key players," Ronaldo said. "But that is no an excuse. We are playing at home, against a difficult team, but we have a big chance to get a good result."
With such typical ambition, neither he nor Messi show any sign of fizzling out just yet. The Barcelona man has nine goals in six games in 2013. Ronaldo is currently at one better, with 10 in his six games this year.
If it's fireworks you're looking for, try the Bernabeu on Wednesday evening.