FC Barcelona cut the gap at the top of the table to 10 points with a spectacular 5-1 victory over third-placed Valencia. In his 200th start for Barcelona, it was Lionel Messi who grabbed the headlines contributing four goals and an assist for Xavi Hernandez after Pablo Piatti have given Unai Emery’s side the lead within a quarter of an hour. The win may not change much with regards to the title race, but it was a clear message to Jose Mourinho and company: while Real Madrid are the most consistent side in Spain, FC Barcelona remain the best.
Martin Montoya was handed his first league start of the season in place of the suspended Dani Alves, while Gerard Pique was restored to the line-up, in place of the suspended Javier Mascherano. For Valencia, the injuries had been piling up before game, with Jordi Alba fortunate to make the bench after a bout of flu but notably they were without Ever Banega who has reportedly broken his ankle as he forgot to put the handbrake on his car. A truly bizarre – and painful – injury, we wish Ever a speedy recovery.
The game got off to a lively start through Leo Messi as the Argentine stretched his legs as early as the fourth minute with a trademark run. The Valencia defense looked worried, but David Albeda spared them a task by tripping La Pulga for the yellow card and the free kick. The free kick did not cause any trouble, but it was clear that Messi looked up for this game...
However, before the Argentine could take centre stage, Valencia took the lead as an early cross from Sofiane Feghouli caused all sorts of problems for Pique and Montoya, while stranding Victor Valdes midway off his line. That left Pablo Piatti with ample time to stride in unnoticed and tap the ball into the net to open the scoring. At this stage, you could have been forgiven for having that familiar feeling of dread.
Barcelona took a while to adjust to the scenario, going a goal down at the Camp Nou remains a very unusual occurrence, but when they hit their stride, the chances came flying in. Pedro was largely ineffectual on the left-hand side, but it was his low cross that Adil Rami failed to clear before Lionel Messi took up possession in a tight angle and slotted the ball past Diego Alves to equalise for the reigning Champions. Even if that was all he did of note in the match, it was vitally important in the story of the match.
During the course of the goal, Miguel injured himself to be replaced by Ricardo Costa, and although the Portuguese defender is renowned for being a central defender, he filled in well at right-back. At least, no-one could have stopped the torrent of chances that Barca would create. Andres Iniesta was pulling the strings in midfield beautifully, and his weighted pass for Eric Abidal was exquisite. The Frenchman proceeded to slide an early cross into the pass of Messi, but the Argentine did need a couple of attempts to find the net. His initial shot was parried well by Diego Alves, but his toe-poked rebound would not be kept out. Barcelona were ahead, but it would be a while before they found their third.
Don’t get me wrong, they had plenty of chances, and I do mean plenty, with an Alexis Sanchez one-on-one, a Messi shot into the side-netting and Cesc Fabregas’ jaw-dropping overhead kick that cannoned off the bar just three of a litany of first-half chances that the Blaugrana failed to convert. Never mind, at least they were ahead.
The second half started similar to the first, with Barcelona instantly creating chances, this time the pace of Alexis created a shooting opportunity that was well saved by the faultless Diego Alves, before Cesc Fabregas fell to the same fate after a terrific run and shot. It was a one-man show at this point, and not the Messi-show we had expected. In due time folks.
Martin Montoya had grown into the game, and without Jordi Alba to cause him problems, he could venture forward on the right and his cross for Lionel Messi’s header was simply world-class. Weighted perfectly to split the defenders, it took a super-human reflex save from Alves to keep the gap at one goal. Jordi Alba was then introduced, and despite all the chances, Valencia had a shot at a draw.
Pique failed to sufficiently clear a ball over the top with a header, as the ball fell kindly for Feghouli who directed a stinging volley goalwards to force a fine save from Victor Valdes. The Catalan had little to do during the course of the match, but he was superb when called upon as per usual. That save kept Barcelona ahead, and with Cristian Tello replacing Pedro, it set up more goals as well.
Instantly making an impact as a sub, Tello’s shot after cutting in from the left was parried by Alves, though the rebound only fell as far as Leo Messi, who could make no mistake with the finish. It was his fifth La Liga hat-trick of the season and one on his 200th appearance for the club. It couldn’t have been scripted any better if they tried.
Well, Messi made sure that it turned out even better. Set free of the defense by Sergio Busquets’ razor-sharp through ball, he dinked the ball over Diego Alves for his fourth of the evening, his first quadruple of goals since Arsenal in 2010. That goal leaves him just 13 behind record-holder Cesar in the all-time goal-scoring list and eight away from a new club record for league goals in a campaign. Unsurprisingly, that record had previously been set by Messi, or at least was equalled by Messi and set by the original Ronaldo and looks set to fall in the coming weeks and months. Truly remarkable.
But he still wasn’t finished. With injury time underway, he slotted a pass towards the run of Xavi, which was partially blocked, but the substitute still lifted the ball over Alves to complete the Manita. Four goals and an assist, all over the third-best team in Spain. It seems Lionel Messi isn't willing to give up this league title without a fight.