Lionel Messi earned rave plaudits from Barcelona coach and team-mates after scoring a hat-trick in Sunday’s 5-1 hammering of neighbours Espanyol.
Barcelona returned to second place in La Liga table after the 27-year-old scored in either side of half-time to pull his side ahead, following Sergio Garcia’s solo opener for the visiting Espanyol early on.
Luis Enrique explained after the match that the Argentine’s equaliser in first half injury-time pivoted the Catalan giants to victory, their seventh on the trot.
“Messi’s goal was key and justice had been done on the field,” said Enrique.
“The game was quiet until that (Garcia) goal, because they were all back on defence. After we drew even it looked like Espanyol began to doubt itself and things opened up a bit for us.”
Messi’s second opened the flood gates for the Camp Nou outfit, with Gerard Pique heading in their third. Pedro turned the game on its head with a fourth before Messi completed scoring with his 21st hat-trick in La Liga.
The playmaker, who is in contention for a fifth Ballon d’Or, drew Barca level with a clinical finish from the edge of the area, and put his side in the ascendancy within few minutes of restart, controlling Luis Suarez’s pass and placing a side-footed effort into the net. His third was a tap-in following a one-two with Pedro.
“He (Messi) doesn’t just score goals. He also throws the other side totally off balance,” Enrique noted.
Messi now has 256 goals in La Liga in 291 appearances. The hat-trick also took him over the 400 goal mark for Barca. Messi has now scored 13 times in the league and now has 20 goals in 19 appearances all competitions.
Defender Pique, who headed from a corner Barca’s third goal, was also short of words to describe the forward whose performance took the game on its head for Enrique’s men.
“There are no words to describe what Messi gives us,” Pique added.
Pedro drilled home from Jordi Alba’s pass to put the game beyond Espanyol before Messi finished with a flourish.
“We were much more fluid (in the second half),” Enrique said. “When these guys close in on goal, they’re lethal.”
Barca’s victory closed the gap on league leaders Real Madrid to 2 points, following the Santiago Berenebeu outfit’s record-equaling 18th consecutive win in all competitions on Saturday. Atletico Madrid are third, two points behind Barcelona.
On to PSG’s visit
Enrique will want to see a more lethal Barcelona attack when Paris St-Germain visit the Nou Camp on Wednesday in the final round of Uefa Champions League group stage matches.
The Baulgranas require victory to leapfrog the French champions to the top of Group F and avoid a difficult opponent in the round of 16.
Enrique explained: “We feel really positive after these results (against Espanyol). The match against PSG should be great. We’re going to compete like we have all season.
“I expect something similar to what we saw in Paris. I hope they have a tougher time on defence than the first match and that we’re the ones deserving of victory.”