Lionel Messi once again showed off his credentials as the most exciting talent on the world stage with a superb hat-trick for Barcelona in a 3-1 win on Tuesday night.
The diminutive Argentine terrorised the Atletico Madrid defence all night before receiving a standing ovation from the Vicente Calderon Togel crowd when he was replaced 10 minutes before full-time.
The result leaves Barcelona well placed to reach the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey when the teams meet again at the Camp Nou next Wednesday.
The 21-year-old sensation set about his task early in the match with great combination play with Daniel Alves, another of the few Barca regulars to feature in a ‘weakened’ first eleven.
With 11 minutes on the clock Alves fed Messi with a well worked one-two which left the striker clean through on Gregory Coupet’s goal. A cool finish into the near post gave Barcelona an early lead.
The teams continued sparring for the remainder of the first half with Maniche going close for Atletico and Seydou Keita wasteful in front of goal for the visitors.
Messi had to wait until the second half for his next decisive moment of the match.
The Rojiblancos had been reverting to dirty tactics in an attempt to stop the Barca man throughout the game. No surprises then when Messi drew a foul in the penalty area five minutes into the second half.
Again great link-up play between Alves and Messi saw the Brazilian full-back slip a ball into the box for his team-mate. Before Messi had a chance to convert the centre he was pulled down by Dutchman Johnny Heitinga.
Referee Gonzalez had no hesitation in pointing to the spot and sending Heitinga off for an early bath. Meanwhile Messi dusted himself off and slotted home the penalty, sending Coupet the wrong way in the process.
The Vicente Calderon crowd made their feelings clear to the home side with jeers and whistles. This proved a much needed spur to the hosts as they mustered a reply shortly after Barca had taken a 2-0 lead.
Substitute Ujfalusi found room to meet Simao’s corner and nodded it behind Pinto to reduce los Colchoneros’ deficit to a single goal once again.
Messi seemed to take this strike personally and promptly got the ball at the other end, skinned two defenders and thumped the ball past Coupet once more. This time he was denied by the crossbar.
Moments later the mercurial talent received the ball in the box with the game entering the final 10 minutes. Instant control allowed him to dribble around the keeper and poke the ball in the empty net and claim the match ball
Atletico fans were able to put the disappointment of their own team’s showing aside for a second and give La Pulga an enthusiastic ovation when he was subbed shortly after completing his hat-trick.
This sentiment for a phenomenal exhibition of skill was shared by the on looking Argentina national coach, Diego Maradona.
The 3-1 win gives Barcelona their 21st victory in 26 games in all competitions for the season. The Catalan’s are 11 points clear in La Liga and bookie’s favourites to win the Champions League again.
However, coach Pep Guardiola’s was quick to play down his role in Barcelona’s impressive start to the season.
“I was merely chosen to train these players. They are the ones who make the coaching staff look good and they are the ones who make this club great.” The 37-year-old said after the game and added, “My job is to ensure they never lower their standards and that they always have the same winning spirit. I’m just lucky to be able to lead this team.”
The coach also seems keen that the people around him should remain in this same level headed mode. When asked what he had said to Messi after such a dazzling performance he said, “I just shook his hand, just like I would with any player.”
The celestial Albiceleste himself seemed chuffed with the display and reaction of the fans when he was taken off.
“It was a very special moment for me to be given a standing ovation. It’s something unexplainable and a beautiful experience for any player.” The pint-sized marvel said.