Another Lionel Messi hat-trick at Sevilla maintained Barcelona’s lead at the top of La Liga, but don’t let the 4-2 scoreline fool you, there are issues that must be addressed as they prepare to play Real Madrid twice in a week...
Messi proved uncontainable once more in Barcelona’s win on Saturday, scoring his 50th hat-trick for the club and taking his tally to 36 goals in 35 games against Sevilla.
The victory ensured Barcelona remain seven points clear at the top of La Liga ahead of a key week for Ernesto Valverde’s side, who now travel to Madrid for a Clasico double header – first in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg on Wednesday, before a league encounter on Saturday evening.
After a difficult February, in which Barca laboured to four draws and a 1-0 win at home to Real Vallodolid before Saturday, the victory at Sevilla looks, on the surface, like a well-timed, morale-boosting performance.
But in reality, Messi’s hat-trick poured a bucket of gloss over Barca’s display, and they can ill-afford a repeat showing as they head to the capital.
Messi, by all accounts, had an off-day at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, with one of his many misplaced passes leading to Sevilla’s opening goal. But crucially, four magical touches made the difference; three in scoring a majestic hat-trick, and the final one to assist Luis Suarez.
To produce such results during a largely underwhelming display will have reminded Real that Messi is one variable that cannot be controlled. It only takes one yard of space, and suddenly he has volleyed, curled or dinked in another goal to equalise or put Barcelona ahead.
Messi’s ability to win a game single-handedly is no secret, and it could well come up trumps in Madrid once more as he looks to eclipse his own side’s defensive frailties, which were evident throughout at Sevilla.
Barcelona trailed 2-1 at half-time because of their vulnerability when countered, and openness down both wings, and they could have been further behind had Sevilla been more clinical on the break.
Ernesto Valverde was forced to address this at half-time, hauling off the right-sided combination of Nelson Semedo and Arturo Vidal for Ousmane Dembele and Sergi Roberto, which also saw the system change from 4-3-3 to a blend of 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 – Messi being the man free to roam in the middle of the park.
The scoreline will tell you the changes worked, but bar Messi it was far from convincing, with the uncertain tinkering far from ideal when you have two games against Real on the horizon.
Dare Real sit back?
Sevilla were at their strongest when countering Barca, and that begs the question of whether Real can dare to adopt a similar approach at the Bernabeu.
Wilfully conceding possession brings about numerous problems, namely increasing Messi’s influence on the game, while the notoriously tough-to-please Bernabeu crowd will hardly sit back and happily watch wave after wave of Barcelona attack in the knowledge Real’s own best form of attack is defence.
However, regardless of whether this risky tactic is adopted, there will be moments when Barca’s advances are thwarted and Real have half the pitch and a three-on-three to contend with – and it will be here where both matches are arguably won and lost.
In Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Real have the midfielders capable of kick-starting that break, while in Vinicius Junior they have a player who can eat up the yards in front of him.
In his first home Clasico, Vinicius will ultimately hold the key to Real’s success, particularly as his left-wing position directly addresses Barca’s biggest problem at right-back.
With blistering pace and seemingly boundless confidence, Vinicius will have Semedo sweating over the next few days, but the 18-year-old will know he is under pressure himself, particularly with Gareth Bale – who himself displayed terrifying pace to score against Barcelona on the counter five years ago – potentially waiting in the wings.
Vinicius proved Real’s biggest threat in their 2-1 win at Levante on Sunday, particularly with space in front of him on the counter, but for all of his five attempts on goal, it was penalties from Karim Benzema and Bale which secured the victory.
It would be unfair to criticise Vinicius for his missed opportunities, but the Brazilian must take his chances against Barca.
The spotlight will intensify on Vinicius and Messi as the first match draws nearer. The first leg earlier this month was billed as the MVP versus the rookie at the Nou Camp, but on that occasion, Messi came off the bench late having struggled with injury.
But there is little doubt he will start the upcoming Clasicos and shoulder the burden for Barcelona once more.
Two fascinating encounters await, and Vinicius attempting to upstage Messi will be a battle to be savoured. The Bernabeu will be praying it’s the rookie who comes out on top.