An astonishing performance from Leo Messi helped Barça come from behind to beat Espanyol at Camp Nou this evening. Ex-blaugrana Sergio Garcia shot Los Periquitos into an early lead but a hat-trick from Messi and goals from Gerard Piqué and Pedro Rodriguez earned Barça a 5-1 victory to remain just two points behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Messi may have been inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo scoring three in Madrid’s win over Celta yesterday – almost a case of anything you can do I can do without a dodgy penalty. The bookmakers have the Portuguese as favourite for this year’s Ballon d’Or but the Argentinian is putting in a strong late push scoring hat-tricks and breaking records on the way.
Cesar and Raul saw their records as top goalscorers in La Liga and the Champions League beaten recently, and on both occasions Messi netted three goals to take the records in style. Today he beat another Cesar record, that of top scorer in Barça-Espanyol derbies. Messi began the day with nine goals compared to Cesar’s eleven. Wasn’t it so typical of the Argentinian that he should grab another hat-trick for yet another record?
His three goals today had class written all over them. The first on the stroke of half-time started with the excellent Jordi Alba attacking from the left, Suarez moved towards him to play a quick one-two and Alba found Xavi who cushioned the ball back to Messi who dummied to shoot but just knocked the ball forward for a better angle and fired low through a pack of defenders and past Kiko Casilla. That was the equalizer. Then five minutes into the second half he put Barça in front. Neymar began the move beating an opponent with a step-over to create space and then finding Suarez on the left, the Uruguayan played a 25 yard pass infield to Messi who touched the ball past Fuentes’s challenge before bursting into the area and hitting a right foot shot into the far corner. The third came at the end to make it 5-1 with Espanyol now dispirited but it was a golazo all the same. Messi span away from one challenge before setting off towards goal, he skipped past another lunge before threading the ball through for Pedro and continuing to receive the return pass with another right-footed finish.
It wasn’t just about Messi. Luis Enriqué sent out a strong XI despite a big Champions League game with Paris Saint Germain in three days, with only Jeremy Mathieu and Andrés Iniesta of the team’s regulars not starting. The first ten minutes showed promising signs as Barça immediately took control against a defensive looking opponent. However, Espanyol did leave two players forward in their 4-4-2 formation and in the 13th minute Busquets, playing his 300th official game for Barça, was robbed by Caicedo who sent the ball to Sergio Garcia. It was a two-against-two situation but Piqué stood off the man with the ball too long allowing Garcia to run into the area and shoot low past Bravo from 15 yards for his first goal in twelve games against Barça..
Espanyol managed three more breaks towards the Barça goal, two of them dangerous, with the score at 0-1. The first ended with Sergio Garcia shooting softly at Bravo and later the Barça keeper had to come out to tackle Victor Sanchez with his feet. Barça took a while to get started and despite dominating possession didn’t manage a shot until Xavi fired over in the 20th minute.
However, Barça improved as the game went on. Messi began on the right and had already demonstrated good crosses towards Xavi and Alba. Then in the 30th minute he burst through the middle and Sevilla was booked for scything him down. The free-kick was 25 yards out just right of centre, Messi curled the ball over the wall but the ball smacked against the crossbar and away.
Messi then demonstrated his skill with a spectacular slalom run past Sevilla and Fuentes that was only thwarted by an excellent block by Espanyol’s promising 20-year-old defender Eric Bailly. Barça’s other forwards were working hard but the chances weren’t coming. Neymar showed some sensational skill and blistering speed on the left but he was too far from goal for more effect, Suarez showed good movement but only had one half-chance after Xavi’s knock-back but he fired narrowly wide.
As the first half neared its end Messi sent a brilliant chipped pass for Alba’s late run, the full-back hit his shot first time but Casilla was well positioned to block. When the equalizer came just past the 45th minute it was well-deserved, though at half-time Espanyol could feel they had also shown merit with a strong defence and some dangerous breaks. The second half was a different story with Barça’s superiority made clear.
Messi’s second goal left Espanyol groggy, then Piqué finished them off in the 55th minute heading in from Rakitic’s corner. Iniesta came on in place of Rakitic to add some sparkle in the last 25 minutes but it was Barça’s second sub, Pedro, who had most effect, scoring Barça’s fourth after a magnificent 40-yard pass from Alba, and then playing the ball back for Messi to complete his master-class.
Ronaldo has no doubt had an amazing year and even though he plays for the enemy I don’t mind admitting I think he is an extraordinarily-talented player. However, when Messi plays at this level nobody can touch him. Simply the best. Simply sensational.
Barça: Bravo 6.5; Alves 6, Piqué 6.5, Mascherano 7.5, Alba 8.5; Xavi 7, Busquets 6 (Mathieu m83, –), Rakitic 6.5 (Iniesta m65, 7.5); Messi 10, Suarez 7 (Pedro m70, 7.5), Neymar 8.
Espanyol: Casilla; Arbilla, Álvaro, Eric Bailly (Abraham m83), Fuentes; Lucas Vazquez, Cañas (Hector Moreno m60), Víctor Sánchez, Salva Sevilla; Sergio García, Caicedo (Stuani m71).
Goals: m13 Sergio Garcia 0-1, m45+1 Messi 1-1, m50 Messi 2-1, m53 Piqué 3-1, m77 Pedro 4-1, m81 Messi 5-1.
Yellow cards: m29 Sevilla, m69 Alvaro, m79 Arbilla