Barcelona started the night level with Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, but three Lionel Messi goals – and two majestic assists – later, they sit three points clear of the pack at the top of La Liga.
Messi was at his sumptuous best to guide the Catalans to a 5-0 victory against Levante, securing revenge at the only ground they lost at last season in the top flight in the penultimate game.The Argentine star was rested that day, but the hosts enjoyed no such luck on this occasion.
Ernesto Valverde had to utilise a 3-5-2 formation after Nelson Semedo’s knee injury in the afternoon ruled him out for the game, but even though Barcelona were unfamiliar with the set-up, Messi guided them to an easy victory.
Ousmane Dembele was used as a right wing-back as a result and the Frenchman took to the role with gusto, too much, perhaps, bringing down Jose Morales and earning a yellow card. But his commitment was notable and he showed no airs and graces – other forwards deployed in such a defensive role might have shirked their duties. He did not.
But despite other performances of note, including that of Luis Suarez who took his goal with aplomb and was instrumental in Messi’s third, this was yet another night to hail the Argentine maestro.
After his stunning performance against Espanyol last weekend, Messi delivered again and kept defending champions Barcelona ahead of the chasing pack.
In the past week he has left his critics, including Brazilian legend Pele , chowing down on pie, of the humble variety.
The forward’s contributions at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium, each individually worthy of note, made him the first player in Europe’s big five leagues to reach double figures for goals and assists.
Barcelona were on the back foot and Levante hit the crossbar, but one mesmeric dribble from Messi later, combined with an inch-perfect no-look cross for Suarez, and his team were ahead in the 35th minute.
Eight later and he was on the scoresheet himself. Sergio Busquets played a through-ball for him to run onto and even if he has lost half-a-yard compared to his acceleration in his 20s, he was still far too quick for Levante’s defence. With his right foot he slipped the ball through Oier Olazabal’s legs to double Barcelona’s lead and feed Pele another slice of that humble pie.
Two minutes after half-time Messi was back on his favoured left and the ball was in the back of the net, steered home masterfully when other players might have skewed it into the Valencia night sky.
The third was a simple tap-in and the credit goes to Suarez, for a fine cross on the outside of his boot, and Arturo Vidal for unselfishly squaring it back to Messi.
But this was the least his team-mates could do for a player that has moved mountains for them.
Barcelona are just five points clear of arch-rivals Real Madrid and it raises an interesting question. If instead of Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Madrid, it was Messi walking away from Barca in the summer, how different would the table look?
The 31-year-old makes the difference between Barcelona and mediocrity.