The atmosphere inside the stadium is unusually subdued because the vast majority of the 30,000 attending fans are fraught with understandable anxieties.
Sporting de Gijon sit bottom of La Liga five games into the 2011-12 season and their prospects of impoving that predicament tonight are slim. Their visiting opponent is the exquisite tyrant of the Spanish and European scene, FC Barcelona, who arrive in Gijon buoyed by a 5-0 midweek away win over BATE Borisov in the Champions League.
All eyes are on Messi because he is the biggest threat to the home team’s vulnerable defence, because he is the two-time World Player of the Year and because he has already scored 14 goals in 10 competitive appearances this season.
No one dreads the presence of La Pulga more than Manuel Preciado. Despite his Cantabrian roots, Preciado has sweated blood for the Sporting cause for more than five years. But the man who achieved promotion with the Rojiblancos back in 2008 is under greater scrutiny than ever after a dismal start to the campaign.
Historically speaking, Sporting’s record against Barcelona at home is highly impressive. They have won 16, lost 12 and drawn 12 against the Catalan giants.
They were particularly effective against Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ of the early nineties, winning four and drawing one of their five league meetings between 1990 and 1995. Since then, they have failed to win on each of the six occasions when Barcelona have come to visit.
Away from home it is a different matter. The Asturians have won just once (1986-87) in Barcelona. On one particularly bitter day in February 1952, Laszlo Kubala hit seven goals against Sporting at Les Corts to equal Agustin Sauto Arana’s record for the highest individual mark in a single game. It is a record which still stands today.
In 12 golden years at the club between 1950 and 1962, El Rubio Kubala scored 194 goals. A brace in the 5-0 win in Belarus on Wednesday brought Messi level on terms with the BarÃ§a myth.
Whether or not he scores against Sporting tonight, it is inevitable that the Argentine genius will not only surpass Kubala but also eclipse the great Cesar, whose record of 235 goals for Barcelona has stood since 1955. Injury permitting, Messi could double that tally.
In 1999, the year of Barcelona’s centenary celebrations, Blaugrana fans voted Kubala the best player ever to follow in Joan Gamper’s footsteps. Messi was 12 at the time. Were the vote to be recast now, the Hungarian-born forward might face stiffer competition.
There was a wonderful story published in El Mundo Deportivo this week in which Carles Kubala offered the only palpable connection which exists between the two greatest BarÃ§a players of all time.
Kubala snr ate, drank and breathed football right up until his death in 2002. The physically feeble specimen which was Leo Messi was inducted at La Masia in October 2000. One day some months after that, Laszlo came home with a twinkle in his eye. He had been on one of his frequent trips to the Mini Estadi, where Barcelona’s youth team trained before the move to St Joan Despi.
Seeing his father’s excitment, Carles asked him what was the cause of his brightened countenance. “I have seen an Argentine boy”, he replied “who has left me dumbfounded”.
Messi’s pre-match demeanour is serious as usual. He kicks his feet and squints through narrow eyes. Before kick-off he indulges in a moment of intimate genuflection – a quick gesture of the fingers to the lips – then points to the sky. But Messi is not praying for a match-winning performance. He is giving thanks for all the great performances which have come before.
Elsewhere, no doubt, on some ethereal plain, Kubala pauses from his eternal game to return the gesture and, with the same generous spirit that accompanied him in life, happily abdicates his throne to his only truly worthy successor.