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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Lionel Messi magic ensures a near perfect night for Barcelona in Catalan derby

Far from the crisis engulfing the Primera Liga giants throughout the off-season, a perfect start on the pitch has helped appease supporters' frustrations.

Lionel Messi scored his 38th hat-trick for Barcelona on Saturday night in the 5-0 win over Espanyol at the Camp Nou. Albert Gea / Reuters
Lionel Messi scored his 38th hat-trick for Barcelona on Saturday night in the 5-0 win over Espanyol at the Camp Nou. Albert Gea / Reuters

With three straight league wins from their opening matches, nine goals scored and none conceded, Barcelona are not making a great fist of being a club in crisis.

There were still chants for club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign, but as they go into today’s Catalan national day, the biggest team in Catalonia sit top of the Primera Liga, already four points clear of Real Madrid.

That’s in part because Barca beat city rivals Espanyol in Saturday night’s derby.

Inspired by Lionel Messi and with new signings Ousame Dembele and Paulinho initially on the bench, they tore into their neighbours who have a history of being difficult foes at Camp Nou.

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Messi’s speed of thought and link up play with Ivan Rakitic was inspired.

There were times last season when the Croatian fell out of favour with then manager Luis Enrique, who suggested that he was not working hard enough in training, yet with Neymar’s departure there is a creative void which Barca’s No 4 is starting to fill.

Fellow forwards Luis Suarez and Gerard Deulofeu stretched the play, allowing Messi to dart into danger to receive the ball. He did so on 25 minutes after he was picked out by Rakitic in a crowded penalty area.

The quick-footed Argentine danced around defender David Lopez, found space when there appeared to be none and struck the ball high into the net for his third goal in as many games.

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“Oh, Leo Messi,” hollered Camp Nou’s most animated section behind the goal, ignoring any suggestion that he was offside, before sparking up with another song about Rakitic.

The pair were buoyant. Five minutes later, they combined again, as they did for the second goal on 35 minutes. Messi thrust forward towards the opposing goal and lost the ball. Jordi Alba crossed it back towards Barca’s No 10 to steer in. It was business as usual.

Messi had not scored in the previous home game against Real Betis, but he had scored two in each of the previous seven home matches before that.

More was to come.

The fans with the “Why stress, we have Messi” banner had a point, but the banner was in English and held up by football tourists. Local season ticket holders, the ones with the power to make and break club presidents, cast a more critical eye.

They didn’t want Neymar to be sold, don’t think their club handled themselves well in the transfer window and were concerned at how Real Madrid outclassed them in two Spanish Super Cup games.

A nervousness persists that some of the club’s other stellar names will follow Neymar out of Barcelona; that all is far from well. There is significant enmity between Barca and Espanyol, so much so that both managers refused to meet last season to diffuse tension before the game.

But it was a night of satisfaction for the home team, who introduced their record signing Ousmane Dembele after 68 minutes – 30 seconds after Messi had made it 3-0, his 18th goal in derbies against Espanyol, a record.

The roar for Messi and Dembele was rapturous, with the Frenchman serenaded by Le Marseillaise with the words changed to his name. Three years ago, the 20-year-old French winger was tweeting about Messi. Now he was playing up front with him.

Fellow new signing Paulinho followed for his home debut, again to cheers in what was fast becoming a much-needed confidence building exercise. That included bringing on the maligned but talented creator Andre Gomes.

Gerard Pique made it 4-0 with four minutes left, out jumping Mario Hermoso to head past Pau Lopez from a corner before Suarez was set up by Dembele for Barca’s fifth. The Uruguayan celebrated with the debutant.

Though the club president was subjected to more chants for him to leave after the final goal went in, it was a more or less perfect night for Barcelona.

They have a tough game against Juventus on Tuesday in their Uefa Champions League group opener, another chance to prove that more is going right than wrong at Camp Nou.