Barcelona provisionally moved 11 points clear at the top of La Liga with a comfortable 2-0 win against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Barca scored twice and hit the woodwork three times in a dominant first half of football as Athletic spent the afternoon chasing shadows, piling the pressure on Coach Jose Angel Ziganda.
Paulinho and Paco Alcacer came into the Blaugrana XI, with Sergio Busquets injured and Luis Suarez suspended, while Los Leones surprisingly dropped top scorer Aritz Aduriz and fellow forward Inaki Williams.
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde coached Athletic for four years, before succeeding Luis Enrique last summer, and won 2-0 in his first reunion with the Basques earlier in the campaign.
Valverde went on to pick up another such result, Alcacer opening the scoring in just the eighth minute when he turned Jordi Alba’s pinpoint cutback into the bottom-right corner of Kepa Arrizabalaga’s net.
Messi was then able to double the Catalans’ lead on the half-hour mark, the Argentine meeting Ousmane Dembele’s low cross and firing a trademark finish past the former Real Madrid target.
It could’ve got even better for the hosts, but the woodwork was to be their downfall. Philippe Coutinho slammed a half-volley and looped a flicked finish on to the crossbar, before Paulinho’s rasping drive clipped the stanchion.
Barca ended the first half 11-0 up on Athletic in terms of attempts, and the restart was no different, with not even Aduriz or Williams able to change the visitors’ fortunes off the bench.
Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Alcacer 8, Messi 30
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Dembele (Iniesta 64), Rakitic, Paulinho, Coutinho (Gomes 85); Messi, Alcacer (Vidal 74)
Athletic Bilbao: Kepa; Saborit, Inigo, Nunez, De Marcos; Benat (Iturraspe 46), San Jose; Lekue, Raul Garcia, Susaeta (Williams 63) Sabin (Aduriz 71)
Referee: Jaime Latre