Lionel Messi has returned to the competition after scoring two goals on Wednesday night against Elche. This came after a poor champions league performance where he was outplayed and outshined by the French youngster Kylian Mbappe.
Messi’s double owed much to a pair of superb assists, with a supreme dribble by Frenkie De Jong coming after a sublime flick from Martin Braithwaite, who also set up Jordi Alba to score a third.
After failing to take full advantage of league leaders Atletico Madrid’s defeat by Levante on Saturday, this victory puts Barcelona back in third, five points off the top, having played a game more than Atletico.
The game has put Ronald Koeman’s side back on track after two disappointing results threatened to extinguish the leverage gained in recent weeks.
Even if Atletico prove too far ahead to catch, a positive performance was important, especially with a semi-final second leg to come next week against Sevilla in the Copa del Rey, which may be their only chance of winning a trophy this term.
Messi’s return to top form comes as a huge boost too. The 33-year-old came off unfavourably in comparisons made with Kylian Mbappe last week but these kinds of performances show he is far from finished yet.
This was Messi’s fifth and sixth goal in his last four games while no player from the top five European leagues has scored more than his 13 this year in all competitions. Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski is closest on 12.
Francisco Trincao and Frenkie De Jong had early chances for Barcelona while Elche should have scored but Lucas Boye sent it over the post.
Yet a frantic opening gave way to a disjointed first half and Koeman reacted by bringing off the ineffective Miralem Pjanic at half-time and replacing him with Ousmane Dembele.
Barcelona scored within two minutes of the restart, Messi driving from midfield towards the area and rebounding off Braithwaite, whose sweeping flick behind his standing leg gave the scuttling Argentinian a simple finish.
Elche’s early threat had dissipated and Barca added two more in five minutes.
The first came from a breathtaking run from De Jong, who dribbled forward from the halfway line, past three Elche defenders, before cutting back for Messi. He glided past two more and prodded in.
Messi started the move for the third, with a familiar, curving pass to Braithwaite at the back post, whose cushioned header across found Alba unmarked in the middle of the field and what resulted was heartbreaking for the visitors.
Ifesinachi Nnabugwu reporting, Obinwannem News