The last time Barcelona had faced off against Celta Vigo in La Liga, the season was just five matches old and the Blaugrana had not lost in their previous 16 League outings.
That midweek match would end with Luis Enrique’s old club smashing four past Claudio Bravo, former La Masia academy graduate Nolito featuring on the scoresheet, Iago Aspas, of all people, standing aloft an advertising billboard with arms outstretched, Eduardo Berizzo’s men in second place and AS calling the result ‘a bath’.
A bath, for the uninitiated, is the Spanish equivalent of a thrashing, a drubbing, or more literally, a whitewash. On Sunday evening, on the back of a record-breaking 29-match unbeaten streak, the tables turned drastically. But for much of the match, it looked like the Catalans would falter yet again.
Enrique, of course, was aware of Celta’s abilities. Since taking over as Coach the summer of 2014, Barcelona had lost to the Celticos twice [1-0 and 4-1] in three outings. The only time Barca had beaten Celta was in April last year, and even then, they were unconvincing against a 10-man outfit.
But this was always going to be a different kettle of fish. When Celta ran riot just five months ago, Aspas, Nolito and Fabian Orellana were considered to be one of the most exciting, dynamic forward lines in Spain. But on a night when a win would’ve propelled Celta two points clear into a potential Europa League spot, the triumvirate were missing.
Nolito is still recovering from a hamstring injury which he suffered in mid-December – he has been out for 65 days already and has missed 18 matches. Meanwhile, Orellana and Aspas were both banned, Orellana sent off against Las Palmas and Aspas booked in the League game against Sevilla.
It is true that things could have been different had Celta Vigo taken their chances in the first-half. Pepe Sene, Claudio Beauvue and Daniel Wass all fired wide of the target in the opening 20 minutes at 0-0. Carles Planas too had an opportunity to score only for Messi for score off a spectacular free kick just moments later. Guidetti would go on to level five minutes before half-time. But in retrospect that barely mattered.
Any hopes of causing an upset were torn to shreds when the five-time Ballon d’Or winner literally tore up Celta’s defence in the 58th minute with an incisive dink over the top to an on-rushing Luis Suarez, whose half-volley brushed the woodwork on the way in, netting his 21st La Liga goal of the season.
The mercurial Uruguayan would later score his 22nd, and his 23rd, a goal which, according to Neymar, was supposed to be his for the taking. The Brazilian would grab one of his own to score his 17th goal while Ivan Rakitic paid tribute to his four million Instagram followers by turning his No 4 shirt inside out, much like he did to Celta’s defence when he coolly chipped Sergio Alvarez after coming on as a second half substitute.
During a fans’ event during the offseason, Suarez was signing a ball for a supporter when the fan quipped: “You’re the best”. “I’m not the best,” Suarez replied, “you know who’s the best?” He was, of course, referring to Messi. Nowadays, though, it’s becoming increasingly easier to rebuke such a sentiment.
Sunday’s hat-trick was his fifth since joining the club, the feat taking his total to 64 goals in 78 games since arriving from Liverpool at 0.82 goals per game, or a goal every 104.3 minutes. Against Celta, the 29-year-old laid on a further two assists, bringing his tally to eight this season.
“The only thing missing has been good play,” a Spanish journalist wrote after a decline in Barca’s form of late. It’s a somewhat harsh remark, but even if they were not playing good football, Suarez always was. Indeed, he was the one who scored in their unconvincing win over Levante last weekend, and played a crucial hand in their top of the table clash with Atletico as well.
Now, thanks to him, Barcelona have a three point lead at the top of the table with a game in hand. Is he the club’s best player? As long as Messi lives, Suarez will insist that the answer to the question is no. But the stats suggest otherwise.