FC Barcelona cut the gap to league leaders Real Madrid to five points with a hard-fought 5-3 victory over Granada at the Camp Nou, and the undoubted highlight was a superb hat-trick for Lionel Messi to break Cesar Rodriguez’ all-time goal-scoring record. Xavi got the ball rolling with a fine volley, assisted by none other than Lionel Messi, before the Argentine got his first of the evening, also with a pinpoint volley. Heading into the break at 2-0, the game looked done and dusted, but Granada pulled it back to 2-2 courtesy of a Diego Mainz header and a Siqueira penalty. At this stage, the Camp Nou crowd feared the worst, before Lionel Messi grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck to put the Blaugrana back ahead with a trademark chip. Substitute Cristian Tello got himself on the score-sheet soon after, reacting quickly to tuck away a rebound after Messi’s shot was parried, before La Pulga completed his 18th hat-trick for Barcelona by firing in from a tight angle after rounding the keeper. There was still time for Siqueira to tuck away another penalty after Dani Alves got himself sent off for handball, but the match ended 5-3, and Barcelona increased the pressure on Real Madrid just a little. Let’s see what Villarreal can do tomorrow!
Pep Guardiola made a few changes from the weekend’s win against Sevilla, most notably with Sergio Busquets dropping out of the squad entirely, while Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro dropped to the bench with Thiago Alcantara, Carles Puyol, Alexis Sanchez and Isaac Cuenca taking their places respectively. In that sense it was a "weakened" Barcelona XI, but one that you would expect to get the job done. Granada started well, pressing high up the field and looking as though there were going to "fight fire with fire". However, that optimism was cruelly crushed just minutes into the match, as Xavi scored his 14th goal of the season to give Barcelona the lead.
Isaac Cuenca was looking lively on the left-hand side, and his delivery to the back-post had both pace and precision to pick out Lionel Messi. Unlike some forwards, Messi chose to play for the team as per usual, cushioning a delightful header for Xavi to hit on the volley and into the bottom corner. For all his goal-scoring exploits, one must also consider that Messi has created 21 goals this season, a figure that may well rank him amongst the top "assisters" in World Football. He is a genius.
With the first goal coming before the five minute mark, one could be forgiven for expecting a rout. So many times over the Guardiola era we have witnessed the side go ahead early, only to ram home that advantage time after time after time, and when Lionel Messi doubled that lead after 17 minutes, the odds of Granada escaping with their dignity intact decreased exponentially.
After driving a shot directly at Julio Cesar just five minutes earlier, Messi was keen to make up for lost opportunities. Isaac Cuenca was the provider once again, bamboozling his marker with a stepover before displaying that turn of pace that he and Tello both share to get the space to deliver another world-class cross to the back-post. Everything about the cross was perfect: the weighting, the spin on the ball, the pace; quite simply it was a beauty, and Lionel Messi made it look all the sweeter with a sumptuous volley that ricocheted off the far post and into the back of the net. 2-0 Barcelona and Cesar’s record had been equalled. Messi is on the lookout for more.
The rest of the first half passes without any real incidents of note, although Alexis was guilty of missing a chance to hit the target, blazing his shot over the bar on the turn. All in all, it was a quiet day for the Chilean.
The half-time break brought a change apiece from either side; Pep Guardiola was forced into a sub as Adriano had to be withdrawn thanks to a muscle complaint, with Javier Mascherano taking his place (or rather Mascherano taking Puyol’s place so Carles could cover at LB). As it turns out, Adriano’s injury isn’t too serious thankfully, but will rule him out for up to 10 days, meaning that he will miss the Mallorca match and the first leg encounter with AC Milan at the San Siro. I really wish we had Maxwell now...
Anyway, back to the match, and on 52 minutes, there was a real shock, not because Granada scored, that was a few minutes away, but because Lionel Messi mishit a football. Isaac Cuenca (again!) provided the cross, this time low across the turf, and perhaps showing a little sign of anxiety given the situation, Messi snatched at the chance and dragged it wide. If things had turned out differently, or it was Gerard Pique/Pedro, then maybe it would have been made to appear more important.
Then, as mentioned, Granada pulled one back courtesy of Diego Mainz. The free-kick was curled in expertly by Carlos Martins, and a portion of the blame must go to Gerard Pique for not adequately dealing with the delivery, but credit to both Martins and Mainz, it was a picture-perfect set-piece goal. The underdogs were fighting back, were Barcelona about to throw away the league title?
It certainly looked that way. Dani Alves was clumsy to give away a penalty soon after, although his challenge wasn’t the worst – and in my opinion – hardly merited a yellow card as well. Let’s just say, the Granada player made a meal of the contact. However, what goes around comes around, and Siqueira displayed excellent composure to send Victor Valdes the wrong way and equalise for the newly-promoted side.
At 2-2, the panic stations were readied at the Camp Nou. "Surely not another Sociedad? Surely not another Milan?" That 2-2 scoreline is enough to give most Barca fans the creeps this season, but thank God for Lionel Messi. Or, as it turns out, thank Messi for Messi.
Was he offside? Who cares, it was Lionel Messi, receiving the ball from Seyodu Keita, one-one-one with the keeper. The end result? Well, a cheeky lobbed finish what else! Messi’s chip was perfectly weighted, and not only did it put Barcelona ahead and back into the title race, but it also moved him past Cesar Rodriguez and into top spot on the all-time list of scorers for this historic club. All this in seven full seasons, and by the age of just 24. He is a footballing God.
Alexis Sanchez and Thiago were withdrawn after that goal, to be replaced by Cristian Tello and Andres Iniesta, both of whom would play a major part in the next goal. Iniesta started off the move, supplying Messi with a brilliant pass, before Leo got to the byline and took a powerful shot at goal. Cesar could only parry it, and reacting quicker than anyone else was unsurprisingly the quickest man on the field: Cristian Tello. The substitute seemed to know exactly where the ball was going to fall, and side-footed it expertly into the far corner of the net from the left side of the box. The finish looked easy, although I can assure you that it was anything but. 4-2 Barcelona.
The clock was winding down, and so was the game, but unfortunately for Granada, Lionel Messi was not taking a rest. Instead, he was causing all sorts of mischief by appearing as though he was about to dart back towards his own goal to receive a pass from Alves, before turning, accelerating and receiving a jaw-dropping through ball from the Brazilian. All that in the time it took you to read that sentence. How could Granada keep up? How could anyone keep up? As if that wasn’t enough, Leo wouldn’t settle for any old goal to seal his hat-trick, oh no. He went and rounded the keeper, before finishing from a tight angle. That’s how Messi plays football. It was his 54th of the season (a new record), his 234rd for Barcelona (a new record) and his sixth hat-trick of the La Liga campaign (equalling a record). He is not human.
There was still time for Alves to give away another penalty, and receive a red card in the process after a "handball" that occurred after the ball had struck his leg first. Harsh, but not unfair is my verdict. Siqueira knew the game was over at this stage, so he humiliated Valdes with a textbook Paneka. 5-3 was the final score at the Camp Nou; Barcelona had cut the gap to five points, but more importantly, with Lionel Messi scoring for fun, they sent an ominous warning to the rest of the world: Stop him if you can!
Next up is a tricky trip to the Iberostar to face Mallorca, without Dani Alves or Adriano. 3-4-3 anyone?