There is nothing about Lionel Messi that makes anyone who follows what little we are allowed to follow of his real life, believe that he cares in the way that we like to think he cares. We do. He almost certainly doesn’t.
For some, he allegedly had a hard week, first finishing fifth in the Ballon d’Or balloting, then having retired football great Pele call him, in essence, a one dimensional, peg-leg of a player. As Messi laid waste to Espanyol, others wondered if he disliked them as much as so many culers do, if he remembered Pau Lopez treating his ankle like a welcome mat, a place to wipe his feet.
Naaah. Espanyol was just in the way, and as Messi trod over the wreckage that was the hopes and dreams of players and supporters in the Catalan derby, you wonder if he took more satisfaction from feeling like himself again, and winning, than anything else. Could be Huesca, could be Real Madrid, could be anyone. It just happened to be Espanyol.
People didn’t know what to think about today’s match. Let’s not forget that for a hot minute, Espanyol was top of the Liga table. They play lovely football, and are formidable in their own stadium. Whether the mistakes that they made were from overconfidence or watching too much match footage, who knows. But a formation that cedes the center of the pitch isn’t the best thing to do against Barça, particularly when reports of the team’s vulnerability on the wings are overrated.
We didn’t see much of Sergi Busquets against Espanyol, because he didn’t have much to do, in one of the oddest tactical twists, and Rakitic had the freedom to help in defending and possession. Espanyol’s tactics were perfect for Barça to play exactly the kind of match that Barça likes to play, and plays so well. Smart possession, counters from ill-advised shots or attacks, or turned possession that finds opponent attackers all too far forward. Barça played brilliantly, but man was Espanyol naive.
And then there was Messi. When he came back from him arm imjury, for whatever reason, he wasn’t right. Whether it took time for him to trust that the first time he tried to catch himself the arm wouldn’t go again, or if it was just form that slipped for a bit, Messi wasn’t right. In this match, Messi was right. It’s easy to see because when he is ready to play, ready to be a force of nature, he moves differently. It isn’t necessarily with more alacrity, but it is with more purpose. He is honed in on the rhythms of the match in a way that even he doesn’t have the capacity for on a regular basis.
He ran, passed, dove, tracked back. He sprinted 50 yards to dispossess an Espanyol player because he was slack in possession, and wanted to make his error right. We don’t get that Messi all of the time, and we shouldn’t. And his team shouldn’t need that Messi all of the time. Perhaps the purest testament to how different Messi was today, even if we couldn’t quite place why, was how many of us knew that when he stepped up to take that free kick, it was going in. The absurd strike that painted the upper corner of the goal was a marker. “I am here. Can you handle it?”
The he made a run, a mazy, crazy thing that ended with him on his knees, lacing a pass into space for Dembele, who knew what to do, smoking home a cross-face golazo that made it 0-2 and left Espanyol in ruins. Whenever you looked up and Barça had the ball, there was danger. The first half could easily have ended four or five to zero, such were the chances and danger created by a team today that was focused and ready, helped by a compliant opponent.
There were standout performances all over the pitch, but particularly from Semedo, who has rewarded Valverde playing him regularly by growing into a dynamic, shutdown defensive fullback. The knock against him is the same as it was against Abidal, that he needs to be more fluent going forward. He doesn’t. Semedo’s pace, reading of the match and physicality have made Pique’s life easier, and less fraught with vulnerability. When an opposing winger gets the ball Semedo closes right up on him, confident that he can win a physical or pace battle. So those crosses don’t find their way into the box to test the back line.
Vidal has made a liar out of lots of people, including me, who wondered if he had the discipline to play the Paulinho role, a role that this team needs. Run the channels, keep the ball moving, defend, jump passing lanes and put in work. Lots and lots of work. His early appearances were plagued by chaos. He ran around like a headless chicken, never at the right place at the right time, even as he was everywhere all at once.
And Dembele, in addition to his golazo and pinpoint passes, two of which were decisive, has reined in his game. He was significantly less free spirited today, for lack of a better descriptive. As with Vidal, his running wasn’t as aimless as he played within himself, like a player who is gradually coming to grips with just what is required of a forward at FC Barcelona. It isn’t doing what you want but rather, doing what the system needs. He and Vidal seem to have grasped that lesson at the same time, and the team benefits from that.
But even with all of that, there was still Messi, who made it 0-4 by lacing in another wrecking ball of a free kick, for those thinking that the first one was a fluke. He has more free kick goals by himself than any team in the top five leagues has in total. As La Liga journalist and Guardioan columnist Sid Lowe noted after the match, it says something about how we view Messi that it felt weird that he didn’t get a hat trick.
But that is his standard. It is so outsized that we can’t properly evaluate him because what he does isn’t normal. When you have a player with those kinds of capabilities, what is the expectation? It did feel weird that he didn’t have a hat trick, felt weird that there wasn’t a more tangible manifestation of the aftershocks of his dominant performance. But Messi will take the win, because that’s what it’s all about.