Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, Sevilla – Deep in the bowels of Sevilla’s historic stadium Ernesto Valverde leaned in close to the reporter interviewing him and whispered; “He is the best, isn’t he?” In this rather non-descript all-white media room – most likely the only place in Sevilla where the sun doesn’t actually shine – Valverde was practically brimming with gratitude that he is able to rely on such a talent.
“All teams have decisive players but we have the best in the world. Not only for his goals but because he always appears in the right place at the right time.”
Leo Messi always seems to appear here, in the heart of Andalucia. Not only was he the difference between a rather lacklustre Barcelona performance, possibly ending in defeat, and a further huge step forward to another La Liga title. There were questions raised in the build-up to Saturday’s kick-off as to whether Messi should start with two Clasico’s coming up in the next week. But any doubt was soon swept aside as Barcelona’s greatest player scored a hat trick and assisted Luis Suarez in completing the victory.
But this was a victory that Barcelona didn’t look like achieving for long periods of the match. Twice the visitors were behind and overwhelmed by Sevilla’s attacking approach on the pitch and the noise of it. But, as is the case more often than not, a cool Argentinian head on shoulders wide enough to carry one of the greatest football clubs of all time with feet skilful beyond comprehension, once again delivered. His first goal was a sweet left-footed volley into the top corner, his second a forceful, elevated right-footed shot after a fine first touch and the third was a cute chip over the onrushing Tomas Vaclik.
The perfect Messi hat-trick. ?#SevillaFCBarça pic.twitter.com/3UgtkPJbun
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) February 23, 2019
Messi makes it all look so easy; his grace, his finesse and his enduring talent are too much for most to take in and for opponents to deal with. Even though this defeat sent Sevilla out of the top four for the first time since matchday six and most of the Sevilla supporters had experienced defeat at the hands of Messi on numerous occasions before, the majority of the home crowd could only marvel and thank that they are also – like the rest of us – here, in the right place at the right time, to see this footballer show his innate talent.
“Messi F.C” read the front page of Marca whilst Mundo Deportivo claimed it was “Classic Messi” with a “genius hat trick”. Questions do arise whether this Barcelona side are too reliant on Messi; they have not been at the fluent best this season and have struggled to impose themselves on too many of their opponents, but having Messi has allowed them to triumph – it is not the worst problem to have. He is the get out of jail free card which Barcelona deploy with regularity, but one can hardly blame them; ‘Get the ball, give it to Messi’ is far from the worst game plan.
Barcelona go into next weekend’s Clasico with a nine-point gap between themselves and Real Madrid in third. Atletico are seven points behind in second, with a tough job on their hands if they are to close the gap. It is why this game, and result, was important for Valverde’s side. Along with the second leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final and the second leg of the Champions League round-of-16 tie against Lyon, Barcelona are very much fighting on three fronts. And despite the rather harsh claims that Valverde is not quite meeting expectations, it is quite frightening that this team still have so much more that they can offer.
What Messi offered here though should not be overlooked, as it sometimes is. As Jose Luis Mendilibar, the Eibar head coach, once put it: “Messi parks well”, which is to say that he lurks in places of little danger and doesn’t seem to be watched and then suddenly, with clever movement and a thought-process to match, he appears where he is not expected and does the damage. It is that emergence from the dark into the bright Sevillan sunshine that stunned the hosts time after time on Saturday. He is lethal and decisive in those areas; it is where he feels at home, at one with the ball, with defenders to beat in front of the goal.
11 matches, 16 goals, 6 assists.
Since December, Messi has averaged TWO goal involvements per match (22 in 11) in #LaLigaSantander. ? pic.twitter.com/bnBx2jwuha
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) February 23, 2019
In many ways this was an exemplary Messi showing; goals scored and goals created. Every goalscorer needs to be ruthless and in some ways selfish, but Messi has enough to not only break records with his own goals but also offer opportunities to others, this time Suarez, who was in need of one. It was the work of Messi that undone all of the hard work that Sevilla had put in during the first half. It was his 50th hat trick and his 34th, 35th and 36th goals against Sevilla in 35 matches; Los Nervions are the opponent who seemingly bring the best out of him.
But it was Pablo Machin’s side who started the better, although not creating a clear-cut chance in the opening exchanges the pressure was coming from the home side. Top four is the best that Sevilla can aim for now having fallen down from second-place to fifth in recent weeks. It has been their away form that has been the most troublesome – without an away league win since September – whereas at home they appear like a different team completely.
Wissam Ben Yedder had Sevilla’s first chance on goal in the 19th minute, following a swift break the Frenchman saw his shot deflected wide by Samuel Umtiti who was returning to action after three months out with a knee injury. Minutes later and Ben Yedder was involved again in a Sevilla attack, this one proving more fruitful. He charged upfield after being laid off by Quincy Promes and in turn picked out Jesus Navas inside the penalty area and he drove a shot beyond Marc Andre ter-Stegen. Few goals are celebrated more than those scored against Barcelona, especially in Sevilla.
But the jubilation was short-lived as just four minutes later Ivan Rakitic crossed from the left and Messi addressed the flying ball with a left-footed volley. It was a goal of precision, quality and force. But it was the hosts who went in at the break with the lead. Pablo Sarabia took advantage of a lose kick by ter Stegen and fed Gabriel Mercado who shot from eight yards out. It was the Argentine’s third goal of the season and was the boost that Sevilla needed following a half of hard toil.
Sevilla had a lead to hold onto and there was a greater element of caution in their play in the second half. Suarez was brought down by Simon Kjaer inside the area but referee Senor Mateu Lahoz dismissed the appeals from the Barcelona players and opted not to consult the VAR. It was a let-off for Sevilla but soon enough they had been pegged back for a second time; Messi with a curling right-footed strike past Vaclik midway through the second period.
Barcelona’s pressure mounted and even though the stadium clock began to suggest that a draw would be the final result, Messi decided otherwise. With only five minutes left, a through ball was played to the feet of the Argentine and a delicate dink over Vaclik was enough to give the visitors the lead for the first time in the afternoon. Messi then played in Suarez who lobbed over Vaclik to wrap up the result in stoppage time. It’s a result that takes Valverde’s side closer to another La Liga title, and a performance that only highlighted the talents of Messi yet further.
Los Otros Puntos
Getafe are, for the time being at least, not only in a European place but a Champions League place. And it is wholly deserved. Jose Bordalas has done tremendous work with the South Madrid club who defeated another club from the area, Rayo Vallecano, to move up to fourth. Jaime Mata and Jorge Molina scored for the hosts either side of a Raul de Tomas strike.
43 seconds! That’s all it took for Athletic Bilbao to get off the mark in the derby against Eibar. And ultimately it was all that was needed to get the win and take them above their Basque opponents. It also continues Gaizka Garitano’s impressive run of results since taking over in December when relegation was a distinct possibility; here, he got the better of one of his former managers and mentors in Jose Luis Mendilibar.
| GOAL! |
Athletic Bilbao have the lead against Eibar within a minute! #LaLiga pic.twitter.com/KfNvblQ1Pj
— Eleven Sports (@ElevenSports_UK) February 23, 2019
Meanwhile, in Valencia, Roger Marti became the sixth Spanish striker to score 10 La Liga goals so far this season – can you name the other five? Unfortunately for Levante, it was in vain as Real Madrid scored penalties either side of it, one though was a dubious decision, to say the least. ‘Hard done by’ might have been the feeling amongst the home supporters at full time.
Alvaro Morata scored his first goal for Atletico Madrid since joining on loan from Chelsea. It was the first of two that Los Indios put past Villarreal; Saul got the second.
What it means to score your first @atletienglish goal! ⚽️??@AlvaroMorata ❤️ #AtletiVillarreal pic.twitter.com/6lPhdAZrPR
— LaLiga (@LaLigaEN) February 24, 2019
Valencia almost hung on for the win away at Leganes but had to settle for another draw.
Real Betis’ win over Valladolid was Joaquin’s 505th appearance in La Liga, overtaking Xavi. What’s all the more remarkable is that he has told a different joke after each of those matches.
Espanyol 1-1 Huesca
Getafe 2-1 Rayo Vallecano
Sevilla 2-4 Barcelona
Alaves 0-0 Celta Vigo
Athletic 1-0 Eibar
Leganes 1-1 Valencia
Atletico Madrid 2-0 Villarreal
Valladolid 0-2 Real Betis
Levante 1-2 Real Madrid
Girona – Real Sociedad to be played on Monday