MADRID (AFP) – Lionel Messi scored four goals and Barcelona reclaimed top spot in La Liga as Real Madrid suffered a surprise defeat by Levante on Saturday night, a week before the Clasico.
The six-time Ballon d’Or winner ridiculed talk of a drought by scoring four goals against Eibar after four games without one, while emergency signing Martin Braithwaite made two assists off the bench, teeing up Messi and then Arthur Melo in injury-time.
Their 5-0 rout, coupled with Madrid’s defeat, means Barca move back to the summit of La Liga, two points ahead of Zidane’s side ahead of next Saturday’s showdown at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“We’ve had good times this season and now this is a bad time,” said Zidane. “Now we have a week where everything is at stake.”
It amounts to a considerable shift in momentum, with Barcelona away at Napoli in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tomorrow night.
Yet on the pitch, Messi showed no sign of distraction as the 32-year-old completed the second fastest of his now 36 league hat-tricks, after less than 40 minutes at Camp Nou.
“There’s nothing left to do but stand up and applaud,” Eibar wrote on Twitter afterwards. “I won’t wash my kit after hugging Messi,” said Braithwaite.
Braithwaite’s arrival from Leganes drew criticism after Barcelona capitalised on a curious La Liga rule that allows clubs to sign outside of the transfer window if they have lost a player to serious injury.
Leganes, without their top scorer, were beaten earlier by fellow strugglers Celta Vigo but Braithwaite made the perfect start with his new team.
Messi quickly got to work, scoring a brilliant first goal in the 14th minute after collecting the ball centrally, around 30 yards out. He had three Eibar defenders in front of him but found a way through, nutmegging Anaitz Arbilla before chipping delicately into the corner.
The second came in the 37th minute as Sergio Busquets found Arturo Vidal, who feathered a flick into Messi’s path. Messi surged forward, past his stumbling opponents, and fired in.
His third, three minutes later, was the simplest of the trio and arrived only after he tried to play in Antoine Griezmann. His generosity was rewarded as a sloppy Griezmann touch meant the ball cannoned back to Messi, who apologetically poked in.
Coach Quique Setien was able to take Griezmann off with 18 minutes left and introduce Braithwaite for his debut. Braithwaite’s first contribution was a skewed cross but things improved immeasurably from there, as two passes across goal gave Messi his fourth and Arthur his first.