No Messi, no problem

If one were to take a look at the goal-scoring charts in La Liga, one might be tempted to say Barcelona were a bit of a one-man show. Lionel Messi tops the list with his stupendous total of 43 goals, just under half of all of Barca’s goals this season. No other player boasts a greater share of their team’s overall count. In addition, he also has the second-highest number of assists with 11, three behind Andres Iniesta.

Barcelona’s dependency on La Pulga has often been discussed. It is almost inevitable given the amount of goals he has scored in recent times. Madrid-based El Pais even coined the term ‘Messi-dependence’ after he picked up a serious knock in a game in early December last year.

But, if there were any doubts that Barca were a one-man show led by Messi, their performance on Saturday evening put them one to bed. Without their talisman leading the line due to an injury, Barca were no different.

Former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas took the Argentine’s place as the team’s ‘false 9’ and he did a rather good job of replacing the Ballon d’Or winner, it has to be said.  The second half was barely a minute old when he calmly slotted home to round off a hat-trick. Not bad for a player who was only playing in the central striking role for the second time in all competitions this season. Interestingly, Cesc is the first Barca player apart from Messi to score a hat-trick since Seydou Keita’s three goals against Real Zaragoza on Week 8 of the 2009-10 season.

But, it was not just Cesc who shone. The much-criticised Alexis Sanchez also stood up to be noticed, scoring a double and setting up two for the Spain international. Together the two played some mesmerising football, full of smart runs in behind the defence, perfectly weighted passes and a level of understanding that was most surprising given the fact they have rarely been paired together in attack. Above all else however, their finishing was lethal.

It seemed the absence of Messi was seen by both Cesc and Sanchez as an opportunity to demonstrate their own talents. And, they certainly made the most of it. Before the game Cesc had not scored since mid-January while Sanchez had just two League goals to his name.  One could go as far to say that the two even revelled in Messi’s absence, perhaps feeling they had more freedom to move about the forward lines and do as they wish.

Barca’s assistant Coach, Jordi Roura, did not hold back in his praise of Cesc: “He adapted his play perfectly to the position of a false 9. He played an extraordinary game. He’s an additional option that we have.” Roura also touched on the significance of Sanchez’s display: “Forwards live off scoring goals. The fact that he was able to score two and give two assists is important for him and for us.”

It is also worth mentioning that Messi was not the only regular not on the field at Camp Nou. In preparation for Wednesday’s Champions League return leg against Paris Saint-Germain, Xavi Hernandez, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets were also left out of the team with the likes of Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Alex Song and Thiago Alcantara stepping in. And, just like the absence of Messi did not have any effect in attack, the absence of Xavi, Alba and Busquets had little effect on the rest of the team. They were still the same old Barca, commanding in possession to such a point that their opponents, Mallorca on this occasion, were beaten into submission before leaving the Camp Nou empty handed just like everyone else this season, apart from Real Madrid.

Meanwhile, even if Mourinho may have lamented that Madrid ‘lost La Liga too early’, his side certainly did not play as if all was lost. They put in an impressive performance against a hapless Levante, recording an remarkable 36 shots in total and dominating the ball in Barca-esque fashion with 75 per cent possession. Though, it has to be said that it was not until the final 10 minutes that substitutes Cristiano Ronaldo and Mezut Ozil guaranteed all three points with three goals between them, but, Gonzalo Higuain’s ‘golazo’ in the first half was definitely worthy of winning any match.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Mallorca’s loss to Barcelona saw them drop down to last place in the standings while Deportivo pulled themselves to within reach of survival with a courageous win over Real Zaragoza. They did it the hard way, coming from 2-1 down to net three crucial points in their fight against the drop. It was the third win on the trot for Fernando Vazquez’ men – if they keep this up they may just be around again next season.