By Mark Doyle
As Esteban picked himself up off the Camp Nou turf after a brave but futile attempt to keep out a Lionel Messi free kick, the Almeria goalkeeper wearily puffed out his cheeks, as if to say, 'How on earth was I supposed to stop that?'
The truth was that there was no stopping a set piece so sublime that it appeared to defy logic in the way in which it went from seemingly going at least three yards wide before curling dramatically and rapidly into the top left corner of Esteban's goal. It was another moment of genius from Barca's talisman. It was Messi at his inspirational best.
The worrying thing from Barcelona's perspective, though, is that even against lowly Almeria, Tata Martino's men once again had to rely on their No.10 to lead them to victory.
|MATCH FACTS | Barcelona 4-1 Almeria
Barca, of course, ultimately ran out 4-1 winners but only thanks to late goals from veteran duo Carles Puyol and Xavi. And even then, Messi had been key in securing the three points, as it was the Argentine's header that led to his captain belatedly killing the game as contest.
Of course, the bottom line from Barcelona's perspective is that they took advantage of Real Madrid's 2-2 derby draw with city rivals Atletico earlier in the day to close to within a point of La Liga-leading Blancos.
However, the degree to which they relied on Messi to get them over the line against relegation-threatened opponents was concerning. Indeed, it merely served to underline Cesc Fabregas' claim in midweek that the Argentine is currently carrying Barcelona.
The good news, obviously, is that Messi now appears to be approaching his very best form at the most important stage of the season. Sunday's goal means he has now scored in each of his last six games, bagging eight in total in that time, banishing all doubts over his fitness - or indeed his love of the game.
The four-time Ballon d'Or winner has repeatedly stated that his goal is to peak at precisely the right time for both Barcelona and Argentina this year and he appears well on course to do just that. However, as Blaugrana team-mate Fabregas conceded: "If more is required of Messi, then three times more is required of the rest of us."
And that was painfully obvious for long periods against Almeria, as Barca struggled badly to break down a side currently sitting 17th in the standings. Fabregas himself was strangely subdued, Alexis Sanchez and Neymar sparkled only sporadically, while Dani Alves had a desperately tough time whenever faced with Jonathan Zongo.
Having been stung by the inevitable wave of criticism which followed last weekend's tame submission against Real Sociedad, Martino had promised a Blaugrana backlash against the Andalusians. "I know that their reaction will be faultless," the Argentine coach stated.
However, what unfolded at Camp Nou on Sunday night was anything but perfect ... Messi's free kick aside, of course.
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