Warm reception as Messi mesmerises

The Tenerife fans had no choice but to switch from hostile to reverential as Lionel Messi had another of those days for Barcelona.

Following their lacklustre start to 2010, Barcelona took no chances ahead of Sunday's game in Tenerife. A heavy travel schedule means that the Catalans had been flying to away games in Spain on the day of the match, but they journeyed to the Canary Islands a day earlier. For once, few of their travel weary players were complaining. Most of Catalonia has been shrouded in a rare layer of snow and temperatures have dipped below zero.

In contrast, Tenerife, which lies just off the coast of West Africa, was a balmy 20C, the holiday island full of northern Europeans escaping their harshest winter in decades. The tourists helped pushed the price of a black-market ticket up to ?450 (Dh 2,400) outside the promoted side's 23,000 capacity stadium in Santa Cruz, the island's capital. Among Tenerife's following is the Armada Sur, a large and loyal supporters' group made up of a mainly British international expatriate set. Formed when Tenerife were in the Primera Liga, they continued to organise travel to matches during Tenerife's seven-year spell in Segunda A when average crowds were around 15,000, making them one of the best supported teams in the second division. That faith was justified when they were promoted in June.

And while life back with the big boys has been as difficult as they expected, they would have shared the same optimism of other fans that a wobbling Barca were beatable. Such feelings would have increased as Tenerife dominated at the start of their game against Pep Guardiola's side. Extra pressure was placed on Barca after Real Madrid's 2-0 home win against Mallorca at a snowy Bernabéu pushed them to the top of the table.

Tenerife's Alfaro had a clear chance to put his side ahead after four minutes, but his shot hit the underside of the bar. He had another three minutes later and Barca were on the ropes, outplayed and out thought. Goalkeeper Victor Valdes, in superb form, was hurling invectives at the sloppy defenders in front of him, but Carles Puyol and Rafael Marquez could do little as Alfaro had a third chance to put his side ahead, then a fourth.

Commentators asked out loud why was Gerard Pique not playing, but in front of the defence Barca's passing and movement was poor. A side that usually dominates possession could not keep hold of the ball but, as the Tenerife fans waited for what they thought was becoming an inevitable opener, they were hit by a man who did not need four chances. Not for nothing is Lionel Messi the best player in the world. He had one opportunity in the 35th minute, a cross from Bojan. Messi took it for his 17th goal of the season and the game was transformed in an instant.

Barca were two up after 43 minutes when Puyol headed in his first goal since the 6-2 rout against Madrid last May. Messi made it 3-0 two minutes later when Andres Iniesta shook off three challengers and fed the ball to Bojan, who squared for Messi to side foot it. It was a complete lesson in finishing and Barca had won the game in 10 minutes. The crowd switched from hostile to reverential. Messi's hat-trick following a sublime chip in the 75th minute was warmly applauded, as was the introduction of substitute Pedro. He is a local boy, born within a mile of Tenerife's ground and the Islanders saluted his achievements. Of course it helped that he had said in the press beforehand he would not celebrate a goal against Tenerife, but his resolution remained untested as Luna turned in an own-goal for Barca's fifth.

A good day at the office as Barca remain undefeated after 17 matches and two points clear of Madrid. sports@thenational.ae