Four goals from Lionel Messi including a first half hat-trick ensured a 5-0 victory for Barcelona over struggling Eibar with their fourth straight league win. It set Quique Setien’s team up ahead of a tough week with away games at Napoli and Real Madrid, but events off the field dominated the atmosphere as fans all around Camp Nou sang “Resign, Bartomeu” and waved white hankies to show their frustration with president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
He is accused of presiding over multiple mistakes at the Spanish champions and while talk of a crisis at a club who have won eight of the last 11 La Liga titles may raise eyebrows, fans sated by the brilliance of Pep Guardiola’s teams set their standards extremely high.
The botched sacking and replacing of coach Ernesto Valverde last month when his team were top of the league having won the previous two titles didn't reflect well on Barca, while Messi spoke out after he felt attacked by criticism from his former teammates and sporting director Eric Abidal. Then there was the failure to sign a striker when Luis Suarez was injured, an issue exacerbated when fellow forward Ousmane Dembele was ruled out until next season.
The weekly scandals and fall outs continued when the club denied that they were behind social media accounts which criticised the players including Messi and Gerard Pique. Barca employed a PR company, I3 Ventures, later rescinding the contract when accounts linked to the company were shown to support their club president, smear legendary players and potential future candidates for club president. Barca denied that they were behind the slurs against their own players.
Public discord with the president is rare but the white hankies came out for former president Joan Gaspart in 2003 after his disastrous three-year tenure when Barca used four managers and lavished more on new talent than Real Madrid. Barca came within a game of missing qualifying for European football and matters came to a head in a night of pure theatre when Gaspart stood up and faced fans at the front of the presidential box as they closed in on his position. Whilst his directors scurried to the safety of the stadium’s inner sanctum, Gaspart stood alone to defend his honour and reputation. Gaspart looked a broken man, but it was utterly compelling to see a man subjected to such abuse and, save for briefly and involuntarily lashing out his arm, take it.
The more austere Bartomeu made no show of defiance. The second and final term of his presidency has a year to run, but he has one advantage over Gaspart: Messi. Bartomeu has summed his job up as bringing enough money in to pay Messi’s wages, while the Argentine remains the best player on the planet.
Although Messi is Spain's current top scorer, his tally is not as spectacular as usual: 14 goals before the game and with no goals in the previous four. He obviously felt he needed to do something about it.
Messi muscled his way through Eibar’s defence to put his team ahead on 14 minutes. He made it two after 37 minutes, dashing down the left, beating three players in one burst before smashing the ball into the left side of the goal.
Barca’s captain made it three five minutes before the break, teeing up Antoine Griezmann who missed his chance in front of goal. Messi did not as he side-footed the ball past Marko Dmitrovic.
Martin Braithwaite, newly signed from struggling Leganes after Barca took advantage of the odd rules relating to injured players and met his €18 million buy out clause – money Leganes can’t spend since they’re not allowed to sign a replacement – was named among the substitutes.
The Dane, 28, replaced Griezmann after 74 minutes to a genuinely loud welcome. He had been ridiculed as not being Barcelona quality and maybe he won't be, but which footballer would turn down a four-year contract at Camp Nou? He assisted Barca’s fifth goal on 89 minutes for Arthur to tap in. That came after Messi’s fourth two minutes earlier, after he had teased Dmitrovic from close range.
The win put Barca two points ahead of Madrid, who are away to Levante later Saturday, ahead of next week’s clasico at the Bernabeu. While Barca are in Italy for their Champions League last-16 first leg, Madrid host Manchester City on Wednesday.
Eibar, the smallest La Liga club, have a relegation fight on their hands. Paradoxically, at the opposite end of the table, in the face of an unhappy public, Barca’s president has a fight to stay in position.