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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Lionel Messi takes centre stage on Barcelona's record-breaking night

The Primera Liga leaders make it 32 games unbeaten with 6-1 rout of Girona as Argentine forward stars despite family grief.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal with Ousmane Dembele against Girona. Sergio Perez / Reuters
Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates scoring their third goal with Ousmane Dembele against Girona. Sergio Perez / Reuters

The first ever Camp Nou derby between Barca and Primera Liga newcomers Girona could have been about politics.

Thousands of yellow ribbons were handed out around the stadium in a protest Pep Guardiola is familiar with. A large ‘Freedom Liberty’ sign was unfurled from Camp Nou’s second tier and chants for ‘independence’ and ‘liberty’ followed.

Catalan nationalists have long been well organised and at Camp Nou they have always found a supportive crowd.

The game could have been about Girona, the team from a wealthy city of 100,000 located 100km north of Barcelona. For many years a Barca stronghold, now they have a team of their own, one which has done well this season and sat a creditable ninth in the table before the game.

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But it was not. Even though the goal machine Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick, it was Lionel Messi, once again, who thrilled Camp Nou’s biggest crowd of the season, 85,417. It was the best atmosphere, too, something the club will not take for granted in a season when average crowds have dropped by 29 per cent.

On the day that he heard his grandfather had died in Rosario, his city of birth in Argentina, Messi took centre stage to lead his team to a 6-1 victory.

It was Barca’s 32nd league game unbeaten, a club record surpassing the one set by Guardiola’s side in 2011. But it was all about Messi, though his side had to come from a goal down after Girona’s best player Portu capitalised on poor defending from Samuel Umtiti in the opening minutes with his tenth goal of the season.

Their lead was short-lived as Messi set up Suarez to equalise. With the Girona defenders packed in front of him, there appeared to be no way for the Argentinian to play the ball forward, but Messi found space to slide the ball forward for Suarez to shoot home a low finish.

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“I don’t know if with that goal we woke up the beast,” offered Girona boss Pablo Machin. “But they were very good."

Girona would never be in the game again, as Messi produced passes which had the crowd roaring. He almost scored with a dipping shot after 18 minutes but his effort was headed off the line by Bernardo.

But it was Messi who made it 2-1 after 29 minutes, when, running away from goal, he turned and shot low through the Girona defence.

Barca were 3-1 up after 35 minutes when Messi, anticipating that the Girona wall would jump up after he took a free-kick, struck it along the ground towards the goal. Goalkeeper Bono was unsighted and the ball rolled past him.

It was 4-1 after 43 minutes when Messi ran from the halfway line towards three defenders before feeding the ball to Philippe Coutinho who made a short cross to Suarez to tap in.

Their domination continued in the second half when Ousmane Dembele set Suarez up, but his strike came back off the woodwork.

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Showing increasing confidence after a difficult start to his Barca career, Dembele came close to scoring his first goal for the club four minutes later, but it was Coutinho who did make it 5-1 after 66 minutes..

Barca’s record signing turned on the edge of the penalty box before curling a shot around Bono.

The scoring and a great night for Barca was completed 14 minutes from time when Suarez scored his hat-trick when he side-footed in a pass from Dembele with 14 minutes left to make it 6-1.

Girona's players were applauded by Barca fans for their efforts. They did not play badly, but were no match for the league leaders and particularly Messi and Suarez.