In the most hostile territory of their home city, Barcelona not only survived, but utterly demolished neighbours Espanyol 4-0 with Lionel Messi playing one of the greatest games of his life.
When the world’s greatest ever player plays like the world’s greatest ever player can do, no opponents can live with him. He was backed up buy the constantly improving and prodigiously talented Ousame Dembele and Luis Suarez. It all made a mockery of Pele’s comments midweek where the Brazilian said: “Messi, the best ever? How can you make a comparison between a guy [Pele] who heads the ball well, shoots with the left, shoots with the right and another [Messi] who only shoots with one leg, only has one skill, doesn’t head the ball well.”
Pele’s timing could have only been worse had he made the comments ahead of a Brazil v Argentina game. Messi put his team ahead after 17 minutes, striking a free kick over the Espanyol wall and into the tiny space in the top corner of the goal which experienced goalkeeper Diego Lopez couldn’t reach.
Cornella is deeply hostile territory for Barca. Gerard Pique was booed every time he touched the ball – the first after 15 seconds – because he’s not been afraid to speak his mind, to defend himself against abuse and to mock fans of a club who call themselves "the marvellous minority".
There were no away fans to support Spain's reigning champions, who wore a garish all salmon pink kit. Hardcore Barca fans want to support their team away in their derby, but there was no ticket allocation. Instead, a few dozen tourists clapped when Messi put his side ahead. That immediately attracted the attention of home fans who moved towards them to attack them. The tourists were saved by stewards. Hemmed between tight social apartment blocks and a vast industrial estate on Barcelona’s south fringe, Cornella is not the Barcelona that you see on postcards.
There was no applause when Dembele made it 2-0 to the visitors after 26 minutes, just a stunned, pained, "whoosh" around all four sides of the stadium after the French youngster turned - Johan Cruyff like - knocking the ball from his left foot and curled the ball across the goal and past Lopez into the top corner. Messi had set Dembele up, releasing the ball to him while surrounded by five blue and white shirts. Messi was the first to congratulate Dembele, who is now showing the form which persuaded Barca to make him the third most expensive player in football in 2017.
Espanyol didn’t play badly; they are enjoying their best season in years and would have gone top of the league three games ago had they beaten Sevilla. But this is Espanyol, where hopes are terminally crushed. They had lost their last three games and would soon fall further behind against their neighbours.
Barca were outstanding, with Messi their best player. He worked a one-two with Suarez, who played the ball back to him – and back. The Uruguayan hit the post. Seconds later, Messi headed against the crossbar.
Messi did make one mistake as the half came to a close with a rare misplaced pass. He then chased back 50 metres to win the ball back. Espanyol fans didn’t know whether to applaud or curse him.
Barca made it 3-0 in the 45th minute, Suarez scoring from a tight angle at the near post. Luis Enrique's side dominated possession and didn’t relent. Messi scored the fourth, another glorious free kick from distance after 65 minutes. It was his ninth goal scored direct from a free kick in 2018 so far. The Argentine saw another header saved after 69 minutes before Espanyol thought they got a deserved goal from defender Oscar Duarte after 73 minutes. Players and fans celebrated. The ball headed back to the centre circle to restart the game – and then the goal was disallowed after a VAR judgement. There were howls of protest which continued when Suarez took his time to leave the field for substitute Munir El Haddadi.
Barca stay top and Messi stays on top of the world – not matter what Pele says.