Real Madrid and Barcelona show that football can still aspire to be something more than a tawdry money-grabbing spectacle
Just when you think you know what he can do, the world's best footballer produces something even more astounding. On Sunday night, in front of 80,000 spectators in the Bernabéu during the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Lionel Messi conjured an utterly extraordinary goal in a quite exceptional match.
On any other night, Messi's goal would have captured the headlines. This time, however, the match itself was the star. Overflowing with adventure and commitment, it was a reminder that football can still aspire to be something more than the tawdry, money-grubbing spectacle we have allowed it to become. But of all the many moments of skill and audacity, the little Argentinian's goal was the one that will stay in the memory.
When the ball came his way a couple of yards from the edge of the Real Madrid area, there were three opponents close at hand. The first of them, Xabi Alonso, was nothing more than a spectator as Messi challenged Sami Khedira, pinballing off the German midfielder and twisting through 90 degrees to follow the rebound. He reached it ahead of the stumbling Pepe, whom he shoved brusquely aside before turning back again and tucking a neat left-foot shot inside the near post.
Here was little Messi, who arrived at Barcelona as a 13-year-old in need of expensive growth-hormone treatment, showing that he is capable of overpowering a couple of football's tough guys. It was almost all he did in the course of the evening – his other contribution had come earlier, with a precise pass out to David Villa which enabled the Spaniard to cut in from the left and find the top corner of the net – but it was enough.
These seasonal warm-up fixtures may be in danger of getting a good name. Ten days ago Manchester United beat their local rivals in a match keenly contested by two teams anxious to set down a marker for the season. The same was true to an even greater degree on Sunday as José Mourinho's Madrid set about the task of expunging the bad memories of last season, when they were traumatised by a 5-0 defeat in the Camp Nou, lost to Barcelona in the semi-final of the European Cup, trailed them in La Liga and were left with only a meagre success in the Copa del Rey.
Sunday night suggested that the balance of power may be evening out as Mourinho starts his second season in the Spanish capital. Despite the brilliance of the goals with which their opponents neutralised the strikes of Mesut Ozil and Alonso and secured a draw to take into Wednesday night's second leg, Madrid had deserved to win.
True, the European champions were without Carles Puyol and Sergio Busquets, while Xavi and Gerard Piqué started the evening on the bench. But Barcelona gave a competitive debut to Alexis Sánchez, the Chilean forward for whom they paid Udinese an initial €26m (£23m) this summer.
Only 5ft 7in but built like a small bull, Sánchez suggested that he will add an extra attacking dimension to an already well-endowed side. For the home team, Karim Benzema looked like a man reborn, Cristiano Ronaldo worked his socks off and Fábio Coentrão, the new arrival, showed promise.
No comparison of the Bernabéu match with a curious leaden start to the Premier League season could be favourable to English football. Here were two teams of the highest levels of talent, power and ambition, giving everything in an effort to win the game. Passes were hit hard and controlled instantly. Movement was constant and imaginative. Both teams were true to their traditions: Madrid fast and flamboyant, Barça more intricate and cerebral. Between them, the 22 starters and six substitutes produced something that was a joy to watch, egged on by two managers who seemed to have forgotten about caution.
The Spanish league, they say, is a two-team competition with a drab supporting cast, lacking the competitive depth and consistency of the Premier League. But when those two teams find a way of living up to their history, as they did on Sunday and may do again on Wednesday, it hardly seems to matter.
The two riders in the break had gone past, followed at a short interval by the chasing peloton and their motorcade of vehicles. Then there was a gap, during which the spectators lining the route of the Olympic test event through Richmond Park started wondering whether it was all over.
It was not. The next to arrive, pedalling furiously, was a slightly overweight middle-aged man in a white and black jersey, with no race number. A few seconds later, another bunch of bona fide competitors swept past, eventually followed by the last stragglers and the broom wagon.
How had the interloper found his way into the race ? It wasn't quite like Jacques Tati's postman, who found himself taking part in the Tour de France by accident. This chap was dressed and equipped for the part and seemed determined to measure himself, however briefly, against Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen and the rest of Sunday's field. Perhaps he fancies his chances of hijacking a medal next year and this was his dry run.
In other Olympic test event news, apparently the Chinese badminton players don't care for Wembley Arena, despite having walked away with the prizes at the weekend. One of them described it as being dirty" and "like a warehouse". Someone should tell them if it was good enough for Rod Laver, Henry Cooper, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Beach Boys, Beyoncé, Santana, Cliff Richard, Abba, Tina Turner, Bill Bailey and Giant Haystacks, not to mention the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who performed in the legendary NME poll-winners' concerts of the early 1960s, not to mention the world record-breaking 1948 USA 4x200m freestyle relay team, then it is good enough for a bunch of shuttlecock-wafters.
Shane Warne may have been a greater leg-spin bowler than Richie Benaud but he has some way to go before he matches his illustrious compatriot's genius at the microphone. To dismiss the third day's play at Edgbaston, as Warne did in typically robust terms, was to misjudge its significance. This country has spent decades yearning for a batsman like Alastair Cook, one capable of waiting four and a quarter hours between his first boundary of the day and his second while compiling an innings of 294 and crushing the life out of the opposition. It's Test cricket, not showbiz.