Barcelona dispel crisis myths as magical Messi leads post-Neymar resurgence
"VAPULEO", screamed Catalan sports daily Mundo Deportivo's headline. It's Spanish for "thrashing", and a clever play on words too; but this was no ordinary thrashing.
As Lionel Messi drifted effortlessly on the Camp Nou turf in what was a mesmerising individual display, Real Madrid were forced to watch on as they helplessly licked their wounds. And they only had themselves to blame.
Just hours earlier, the Merengues struggled. With a host of the international stars still readjusting following international duty, Zinedine Zidane, who has hardly put a foot wrong since taking over the reins of the club, decided to rotate the squad. The end result was a draw at the Santiago Bernabeu for a second successive match against the Valencia-based opposition.
"Madrid stuck without Cristiano," read a headline from Marca. Madrid's own Lucas Vazquez, the man that brought the match back to parity, agreed. "Missing a striker? Another player who can play there is Cristiano, he’s already missed four games and that’s too much".
Indeed, Ronaldo's spell on the sideline, through suspension, is a big loss, but there's certainly a feeling that the lack of options in the no.9 role, further compounded by Karim Benzema's injury, Gareth Bale's lacklustre form and Alvaro Morata's exit, is a problem which will plague the club for the foreseeable future. Well, until January, at least.
As if to rub salt into their wounds, just 610km north-east of the Bernabeu, Espanyol were being torn apart by a side in which a clearly jet-lagged Luis Suarez was deployed on the left flank, and scored a goal too. Hell, even Gerard Deulofeu, who performed terribly in the Spanish SuperCopa, was hailed for a lively display on the right.
It was Messi though who, once again, stole the limelight. Having been used in the wider areas during the Luis Enrique era, the mercurial Argentine made a triumphant return to his 'false nine', opening the scoring just after 26 minutes, bagging a second before half-time before securing his 38th league hat-trick with just over an hour played.
And even though Espanyol knew a classy performance from the five-time Ballon d'Or winner was on the horizon, well, Granero did anyway, there was little Quique Sanchez Flores' men could do to stop him. His passing was on point, his runs were dangerous, his pressing dogged. He looks happier now too and was seen smiling, which ordinarily wouldn't be much of a talking point except for the fact that everyone seemed to point it out whenever he wasn't.
Prior to Barcelona's clash against Juventus on Tuesday evening, the Bianconeri boss Massimiliano Allegri was asked to comment on last season's quarter-final clash in which the Catalans failed to register a single goal as they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 over the two legs. He remarked: "To go three games against them without conceding a goal [this year] would be extraordinary."
He was right. As Messi proved once again that he is the undisputed king of football in scoring two and playing a crucial part in the side's second, Allegri watched on helpless as the La Pulga's apparent heir, Paulo Dybala failed to fire.
It wasn't just Messi who was in fine fettle. Nelson Semedo, Barcelona's summer acquisition has seemingly made the right-back position his own; Jordi Alba has been patrolling the left flank with renewed vigour, Ivan Rakitic has stepped up dominated proceedings in midfiled in recent outings and the magician Andres Iniesta has shown that the old dog is far from finished.
As a whole, both these victories have proven to be promising performances. Barcelona, now, seem to be playing with an intensity which hasn't been seen since the Pep Guardiola days. On the few occasions the Blaugrana lost the ball, they reacted ferociously, pressing high up and pitch, closing down space and determined to win the ball back. Now, too, they are passing with purpose and are making inroads as a collective without necessarily relying on the individual flair of the now defunct triumvirate.
"Neymar's departure was an opportunity to end the strength of the trident. It's been really good but it's had consequences. It's an opportunity to play a return to collective football in midfield, which is traditionally Barça's strength," president Josep Maria Bartomeu said recently.
Whilst many have since criticised it as an excuse for a poor, Bartomeu has a point. And the weekend's performance seems to lay claim to that.
Having been humiliated on the transfer front with Neymar's departure and the failure to secure high-profile signings as well as commencing the season with a 5-1 aggregate SuperCopa defeat to their eternal rivals, Barcelona were tipped to lag behind Los Blancos in all competitions. And while it is still early days, early indicators suggest things on the pitch aren't quite that bad. After all, they're currently joint La Liga leaders with nine points from three wins. Sources within the club claim that the mood within the squad is positive as well, and are working doubly as hard under Ernesto Valverde.
"We are at the beginning of the season and the distances are not significant, but it is better to be ahead than behind," Valverde said following their victory over the weekend.
Better still, Barcelona are four points ahead of a side who have stumbled despite tipped to win it all this season. The Catalans, who had their pride stung, are on the mend. And as the side continue to improve, it spells danger as Valverde's men look to reach the summit of European football again. And they have La Liga and the Champions League well within their sights.