Lionel Messi’s hat-trick saw Barcelona move four points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga as Ousmane Dembele marked his debut with an assist in a 5-0 rout of local rivals Espanyol.
Here are three things learned from the win…
He might have just become the second-most expensive footballer in history, but Ousmane Dembele will have to wait a while to become the main attraction at Camp Nou.
In this thrashing of Espanyol, one man alone took centre stage. And it was the same man who always takes centre stage – and whose firm occupation of that position probably played a part in Neymar’s departure: Lionel Messi.
After a frustrating week on international duty with Argentina, Messi was back in more comfortable surroundings and produced yet another brilliant performance to register his 42nd career hat-trick, emphasising once again that Dembele’s task is to fit into Messi’s team, not to become the star.
Barca coach Ernesto Valverde has already learned that lesson, accommodating Messi by reshaping his team into a strange formation which had Gerard Deulofeu on the right wing but nobody on the opposite flank as Luis Suarez occupied the inside left position and Messi roamed free.
It looked odd and imbalanced, but with Messi in such magnificent form there can be no complaints about its effectiveness.
The first 65 minutes of the game showed that Dembele has competition for his place in the team, with Gerard Deulofeu producing a strong performance which culminated in a nice assist for Messi’s hat-trick goal just before his substitution for Dembele.
Tellingly, Deulofeu looked particularly comfortable with the team’s patient passing approach, knowing when he should keep it simple and when was the right time to be more adventurous.
That’s no surprise because Deulofeu grew up in the club’s youth system and his intimate familiarity with the playing methods of key men like Messi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets gives him a natural advantage over Dembele, who is arriving with no prior experience of the ‘Barca way’.
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine the club’s record signing occupying a place on the bench and Dembele will surely become a starter very soon. But if he doesn’t perform or needs a rest, Valverde has another ready-made option in the form of Deulofeu.
What, though, of Dembele’s debut?
On the whole, he didn’t have much of a chance to shine during his 25 minutes on the pitch, being introduced with his team already three-up and only getting 11 touches as the game wound down towards its inevitable climax.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the final minute, we would now be talking about a gentle Camp Nou introduction for the French youngster.
But in those final ticks of the referee’s watch Dembele succeeded in delivering a rousing finale by bursting free down the right wing and rolling a perfect pass into the path of Luis Suarez, who couldn’t miss.
The goal was rapturously received by the 70,000 home fans in attendance, and it was obvious their joy was for the maker rather than the taker.
Following Neymar’s sour exit, Barca fans are desperate for Dembele to succeed with flying colours. He received one huge ovation when he came out to warm up, another when he was introduced as a substitute, and a third after teeing up Suarez to score.
Clearly, Dembele already has the fans on his side, and he couldn’t have asked for much more from his debut.
Record signing Ousmane Dembele made his debut but Lionel Messi again made the difference as Barcelona maintained their 100 percent start to the season and opened up an early four-point advantage over Real Madrid.
Visiting Espanyol never looked like claiming anything from this local derby, with Barca in full control throughout as they totally outclassed their cross-town rivals.
Messi netted twice before the break and later completed his hat-trick, allowing manager Ernesto Valverde to introduce Dembele when the game was already won, and the young French winger wasted no time in making his mark by providing a perfect assist for Luis Suarez to complete the scoring.
Lionel Messi has now scored 42 career hat-tricks:
Barcelona (38) 🔵🔴
Argentina (4) 🇦🇷
Quite simply brilliant. 🐐 pic.twitter.com/1KUsddzFjV
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 9, 2017
Barca were dominant from the opening whistle, probing patiently and leaving Espanyol to chase shadows in their attempts to maintain the deadlock.
The visitors were initially successful in that aim, with their disciplined defending preventing the hosts from creating any chances in the opening 20 minutes other than a free-kick from Suarez which Pau Lopez safely got behind.
But then the visitors were sliced open by Ivan Rakitic, with his clever reverse pass to Messi – who should have been flagged offside – creating the kind of chance the Argentine rarely misses as he duly swept home with his trusty left foot.
The same two players combined again almost immediately as Rakitic slalomed through the defence and played a sharp one-two with Messi before forcing a good low save from Lopez.
But Messi didn’t need long to strike again, turning home from close range after Jordi Alba reacted quickest to a loose ball in the box and delivered a well-placed low cross.
Espanyol nearly gave themselves hope when Pablo Piatti smashed a snapshot against the post, but that was a rare attacking foray and the second half started with Suarez – who was enduring a frustrating night – denied a close-range goal by Lopez’s smart save.
Piatti scooped a great chance wide after a mistake by Alba, but Barca were always threatening and went close through Messi and Suarez as the chances continued to flow.
Samuel Umtiti did well to block Leo Baptistao’s shot, but Messi extinguished any doubts by completing his hat-trick with a crisp low finish from the bright Gerard Deulofeu’s smart pass.
Gerard Pique made it four with a powerful header from Rakitic’s inswinging corner, and in the last minute Dembele rounded off a perfect night for Barca with a pinpoint assist for Suarez to convert.
Manchester United remain top of the table despite two goals from Cameroon forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting to earn stoke a 2-2 draw in the late kick-off at the bet365 Stadium.
Choupo-Moting, a summer recruit from Schalke, put the Potters ahead on 43 minutes.
United, though, were back on level terms just three minutes later through Marcus Rashford, who inadvertently deflected a header from Paul Pogba into the net following a corner.
Romelu Lukaku gave United, who had made a 100 per cent start to the new Premier League season, the lead on 57 minutes after his initial shot had been saved by Jack Butland.
Choupo-Moting, though, secured a point for the home side with a header just after the hour, although Lukaku shot over late on and Butland produced a fine reaction stop in added time.
— ManUnitedZone (@ManUnitedZone_) September 9, 2017