News Live Scores
Barcelona

Messi back to Barcelona best as free kick magic banishes Argentina woes

21:13 EAT 30/03/2019
Lionel Messi Barcelona 2018-19
The Argentina captain returned to the place where he is most comfortable after a frustrating international foray with the Albiceleste

Just when you think you’ve seen it all from Lionel Messi, he produces something else.

Barcelona struggled to create openings against a stubborn Espanyol and looked like they had missed their chance to move even further clear at the top of La Liga. Indeed, on a lazy Saturday afternoon in the Camp Nou sun, it almost seemed like they were content with a goalless draw against their local rivals.

But Messi wasn’t.

The Argentine star, who endured frustration again with the Albiceleste during the international break, simply looks so much more comfortable in Blaugrana. Messi's Argentina were beaten by Venezuela in Madrid and the player was abused by fans for pulling out of the team’s second game, against Morocco.

But back in Catalonia he found nothing but love from the 92,000 plus fans who urged him on as he looked at the ball, 20 yards out from goal. Having sent a free kick into the wall earlier, Messi knew he needed to make this one count. Barcelona weren’t playing with their usual fluency and with under 20 minutes remaining, it could have been the team’s best chance to win a crucial game. And he took that chance.

Coach Ernesto Valverde agreed this was the start of a huge week which could virtually deliver Barcelona the title. First the Catalan derby, then a trip down Spain’s east coast to face Villarreal, before hosting second place Atletico Madrid in a week’s time. That’s why the coach picked his strongest available side, with Messi and Luis Suarez not spared despite their injury problems over the past fortnight.

Aware of Barcelona’s intentions, Espanyol coach Rubi went for an uncharacteristic five-at-the-back, telling the champions-in-waiting they would have to work hard for their goals.

This was the type of match Barcelona signed Philippe Coutinho to make the difference in. When teams are packed tight, sitting deep and refusing to break rank, you need a little magic.

The Brazilian playmaker was supposed to be the man with the wand, either unpicking the lock with skilful footwork or charging down the door with a long-range screamer. However he found it difficult, as he has all season, while Suarez looked like he usually does after international breaks - off the pace.

The Uruguayan didn’t go to China with his country because of an ankle injury, but didn’t look particularly refreshed either, lumbering around up front, crowded out.

Messi faced heavy scrutiny from Espanyol’s defence, who weren’t shy to get physical with him, and even though he was playing well it was hard for him to overcome the sheer numbers at times.

It was Messi who won the free-kick in the 71st minute, hacked down on the edge of the box by Victor Sanchez. And as the No 10 studied the situation, he decided to pull a new trick out of the bag.

Using the same technique as for a Panenka penalty, Messi lofted the ball over the wall. Espanyol’s defence were confused by the execution and Sanchez, scrambling back, could only head into his own net from on the goal-line.

That broke Espanyol’s resistance and Messi grabbed another goal to round off the 2-0 win when he tucked home from Malcom’s cross.

Barcelona were unusually poor, but their saviour Messi was as good as usual, and continues to bamboozle defences, driving Barcelona another inch towards the finish line.