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…
MEET THE NEW BOSS; SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
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.
DE-DE DOWN THE WING FOR BARCA
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.
DEMBELE ALREADY A FAN FAVOURITE
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.