Football Features

“Messi is back in the saddle” – Winners and Losers as Argentine ace leads Barcelona blitz of Eibar to go top of La Liga

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:27, 22 February 2020

In a thrilling afternoon of football, Barcelona thrashed Eibar 5-0 at the Camp Nou.

Leo Messi smashed his scoreless streak with a tremendous “poker” and new man Martin Braithwaite made a nice cameo. Who were the winners and losers?

Winner: Leo Messi

Leo Messi missed the first four games of La Liga with injury, then played 45 minutes in the next two games and missed a further with another knock. He didn’t play 90 minutes in the league until Barcelona hosted Sevilla on gameweek 8. And even then, he was basically having to go through his own personal pre-season whilst everyone else was at full speed.

No one would have begrudged Messi to have an off season after that horrible start. No one would have thought less of him if he didn’t top the charts. But hey, guess what? Leo Messi has more goals (18) and assists (12) than any other player in La Liga for this season. He gave them a headstart, caught them up and blew them away, even having time to go on a four game 398-minute goalscoring drought as well.

Messi is simply outrageous. His ‘poker’ haul today was an embarrassingly good quartet of goals for different reasons. The first was pure class, nutmegging poor Arbilla before chipping it beyond the despairing Dmitrovic. The second was the kind of routine Messi strike that shouldn’t be easy but is for him.

The third was pure comedy as Messi made a great run, tried to square the ball to give Antoine Griezmann a tap-in but when that move broke down, Messi finished it off himself. The fourth goal right at the end of the game granted a decisive assist for new-signing Martin Braithwaite on his debut, which is a lovely moment.

Smashing a four game winless run with a four goal haul is some poetic symmetry. Duck and cover, sports fans, Messi is back in the saddle!

Loser: Antoine Griezmann

You have to feel for Griezmann, in many ways. Obviously he got a dream move to Barcelona and is being paid a massive amount of money, but his contributions go largely unnoticed and when he struggles, he seems to really struggle. Today, he struggled.

Griezmann just couldn’t get it together against Eibar. His passing was off, his movement was out-of-sync with his team-mates, and when he did get the ball in positions to pull the trigger it just never worked. Whether he was dawdling and got tackles (as happened for Barcelona’s third goal) or because team-mates ruined his few moments of great movement by running across his path and stealing shots he would have taken (and probably scored).

To make matters worse, the man who he was subbed off for came on and really injected Barcelona with drive and purpose and bagged two assists (well, sort of).

Winner: Martin Braithwaite

It’s hard to imagine a better debut off the bench than the one Martin Braithwaite put in at the Camp Nou. Obviously with the game already won, it wasn’t like there was much pressure, but instantly Braithwaite showed that despite being an emergency mid-season signing he could actually prove to be absolutely perfect.

In many ways, Braithwaite is exactly the kind of forward Barcelona have needed for years. Fast, direct, hard-working and willing to run off the ball. Nearly all of Braithwaite’s cameo against Eibar was him hanging on the shoulder of the Eibar defence, ready to sprint in behind. That kind of skill-set will prove to be gold-dust for the Blaugrana as he should develop a profitable partnership with Messi.

He didn’t score today, but apart from showing what a great tactical fit he is, the Dane bagged two assists. Well, kind of. He played a lovely ball across the face of the goal that Messi turned in, but the goalkeeper getting a touch on the cross may rob him of the actual assist. Similarly his shot was saved excellently by Dmitrovic before Artur turned home the rebound. Braithwaite could accidentally become the best winter transfer in La Liga, wouldn’t that be something?

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Loser: Real Madrid

Before this weekend Barcelona were struggling. Messi was on his biggest scoreless streak since 2014 and they had no direct pacy option off the bench. Now they smashed five past Eibar and Braithwaite showed he is more than capable of being an extremely useful squad member. Suddenly the prospect of Barcelona and Real Madrid fighting it out for the title no longer seems as one-sided a prospect as it did. Moreover Madrid have literally been knocked off the top of the table, though they could return there.

Winner: Quique Setién

Quique Setién has ridden out a genuinely tricky run of fixtures to start his career as Barcelona coach whilst improving the way the team plays. He’s handled a Messi scoreless streak and kept his star-man focused and involved at all times (and now back scoring). He’s ignored the institutional crisis that has plagued the club and managed to bring in a back-up striker of his own choosing who impressed on his debut. Short of suiting up for a 5 minute cameo where he scored himself, it’s hard to imagine things going better for Quique Setién this afternoon.

Loser: Napoli

Napoli would have hoped to be coming up against a Barcelona side featuring a star man who was struggling. But Messi scored four. And they also hoped that the Blaugrana would struggle with their lack of depth, but then they blew Eibar away with a raucous 5-0 win whilst also giving a rest to key players like teenager Ansu Fati and midfielder Frenkie de Jong (who only played 30 minutes). They also got Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Antoine Griezmann some rest at the latter stages of the match. These moves could prove key in a long and gruelling night in the Stadio San Paolo.

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