The Argentine hit a superb hat-trick as the Blaugrana cruised to a third straight win in La Liga and opened up a four-point advantage over Real Madrid.
Crisis? What crisis? The dark clouds have lifted following a difficult summer at Camp Nou and Saturday night’s wonderful win at home to Espanyol, inspired once again by Lionel Messi, leaves Barcelona sitting pretty after three rounds of La Liga.
Messi has long been a tormenter of Espanyol. Prior to this match, the Argentine attacker had hit 15 goals against his side’s city rivals in the Primera Division, more than any other player in the history of the Catalan derby. Now he has three more to add to that tally.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner opened the scoring after 26 minutes. He was marginally offside when he received the ball, but still had plenty to do and sidestepped his markers before rifling into the top corner.
Another predatory finish followed before half-time and a third arrived after the break, before goals from Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez rounded off a memorable victory.
So, that is now three wins out of three for Barca in La Liga, a maximum nine points, nine goals scored and none conceded. All of that is a far cry from the doom and gloom that ensued after the 5-1 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercopa last month – and it is made better by the fact that Los Blancos have already dropped four points in the Primera Division this term.
It was not only Messi, either. Ernesto Valverde’s 4-4-2 formation looked effective in the derby, with Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets both impressive in midfield, summer signing Nelson Semedo looking like a good buy with another polished performance at right-back and Suarez scoring on his return from injury with the Catalan club.
This was easily Barca’s best display of a season that had started amid depression following the sale of Neymar, failure to bring in players like Marco Verratti and Philippe Coutinho and the predictable fallout from the two Clasico losses.
And if the performance gave reasons for positivity to the Camp Nou crowd and the millions of Barca fans watching elsewhere in the world, so too did the debutants as Paulinho did well in his short time on the pitch and Ousmane Dembele came off the bench to assist Suarez for the team’s fifth of the night.
So, plenty of positives and Valverde, for the first time in his coaching career, has kicked off a Liga campaign with three straight wins, although there will of course be tougher tests ahead than Betis, Alaves and Espanyol.
The first of those comes on Tuesday night with the visit of Juventus, the team that ended Barca’s Champions League challenge last season with a 3-0 aggregate vicory in the quarter-finals of the competition.
That will be a better marker of just where the Blaugrana are right now and despite more calls for president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign on Saturday, Messi’s magic, Dembele’s debut and the tactical astuteness of Valverde have given Barca good reasons to be optimistic as they finish the weekend with an unexpected four-point cushion over rivals Real.