Lionel Messi gave a man-of-the-match display as Barcelona defeated nine-man Espanyol, 4-1, on Wednesday to take the upper hand in the first leg of their Copa del Rey round-of-16 clash.
A quick counter-attack saw Felipe Caicedo fire Espanyol into a shock lead early on at the Camp Nou, but Messi scored a first-half brace to ease the tensions before Gerard Pique and Neymar added a pair of second-half strikes.
Any hopes Espanyol might have held of staging a "cupset" were swiftly extinguished thanks to Messi's brace, but second-half red cards for Hernan Perez and Pape Diop only stunted them further.
Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal made their first appearances for Barcelona after finally registering for the club this month. Both players moved to the club last summer and featured on Wednesday—Turan as a starter—after finally being allowed to register for the Blaugrana following their 2015 transfer ban.
The two-man deficit clearly didn't help Espanyol, but this was a sublime performance from the Blaugrana and Messi in particular, leaving Bleacher Report's Graham Ruthven dumbfounded:
Graham Ruthven @grahamruthven
This Barcelona team is just stupid.2016-1-6 21:18:39
Barcelona were seeking revenge over Espanyol following their 0-0 stalemate in the league on Saturday, but the Camp Nou was left stunned as Caicedo gave the visiting outfit a shock lead on Wednesday.
Bleacher Report's Jason Pettigrove picked out Dani Alves as the player to blame after he gifted the ball to on-loan Real Madrid youngster Marco Asensio, who put Caicedo through for an easy finish:
Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove
Dani Alves giving Luis Enrique every reason for brining Aleix Vidal on at half time. Disastrous pass. Great play by Asensio/Caicedo.2016-1-6 19:40:27
The surprise lead didn't last long, though, and Messi cancelled out the opener just four minutes later thanks to some eye-of-the-needle magic courtesy of Andres Iniesta.
The Spaniard squeezed his pass through a pile of bodies on the edge of the Espanyol area to find Messi deep in enemy territory, and the attacker made no mistake from close range.
The best was still to come, though, and after spending 30 minutes on level pegging, Barcelona nudged into the lead just before the break thanks to a majestic Messi free-kick.
Rarely will one see a player's left foot wrapped so sublimely around the ball as Barca's No. 10 sizzled in his second from 30 yards out, leaving Goal's Ben Hayward in no doubt as to who rules the set-piece roost:
Ben Hayward @bghayward
Maybe #Messi can give #Cristiano a few free-kick tips when they meet in Zurich on Monday...2016-1-6 20:24:23
Turan had a positive first 45 minutes of his Barcelona career, and OptaCan took note of how well he was functioning alongside his new attacking partners down the right flank:
10 - Ten of Arda Turan's 14 successful passes and crosses in the first half were played either to Lionel Messi (6) or Dani Alves (4). Line.2016-1-6 20:30:20
After scoring just prior to the break, Messi assumed the role of puppeteer for Barca's third and teed up Pique a few minutes after the restart.
Iniesta slipped a terrifically timed ball down the left flank, and Messi cut in before passing across the face of Espanyol's box, where Pique was on hand to slide the begging ball home.
Barca had a wind in their sails with 30 minutes to go, and Messi was at the heart of it all. However, major controversy erupted when Espanyol No. 1 Pau Lopez was captured stamping on the leg of the Argentinian following a break in play.
Luis Suarez had to stop Messi from becoming entangled with Lopez, who could suffer a retroactive punishment for his action, which the Guardian's Sid Lowe dubbed "very nasty:"
Sid Lowe @sidlowe
Replay just caught what Pau did to Messi. Very nasty.2016-1-6 20:44:39
The remainder of the second half turned into a to-be-expected display of Barcelona's possession-based dominance, and Espanyol's hopes were turned to rubble after they saw two men sent off in the final 20 minutes.
Perez was deservedly shown a second yellow for obstructing Jordi Alba, and Diop was given a straight red just minutes later after appearing to enter a war of words with Suarez. Even then, the fouls didn't stop, and Kieran Canning of Agence France-Presse rightly attested it could have been worse:
Kieran Canning @KieranCanning
Espanyol not doing themselves any favours tonight. Down to nine and could easily have had more sent-off, especially Lopez2016-1-6 21:07:37
Constantin Galca's side might have almost considered it a small victory had they managed not to concede while down to nine men, but Neymar ensured the visitors suffered one more embarrassing blow.
After exchanging a synchronised one-two with Messi on the edge of the box, Neymar volleyed home and led Hayward to suggest the tie is as good as decided:
Ben Hayward @bghayward
Bad mistake by Espanyol, but wonderful one-two between Neymar and Messi and a fantastic finish by the Brazilian. Tie all but over now.2016-1-6 21:17:51
Enrique's side have a week to wait before they travel to the Power8 Stadium next Wednesday, but a home fixture against La Liga strugglers Granada sits between them and the return leg.
Barca may be tempted to rest some of their first-string stars for that clash against a relegation-threatened opponent in the hope of preserving as many of their elite assets as possible.
Espanyol have a more arduous task on their hands as they prepare to visit Eibar on Sunday, albeit with not as many options available in terms of resting certain personnel.
Los Periquitos managed to cause an upset after holding their derby opponents to a goalless draw on home soil in the league last Saturday, but Galca will have to muster a more visceral attacking threat next time around.
While the end result doesn't indicate the tension Barcelona may have been feeling coming into Wednesday's matchup, victorious coach Enrique took note of the pressure on his side coming into the clash.
After drawing 0-0 with the same team just days prior, the Barca boss said his team "played well and achieved the objective," per the club's official Twitter account, touching on the added impetus of a derby fixture:
FC Barcelona @FCBarcelona
Luis Enrique: "It's normal there is tension, It's a derby and we have our rivalry" #FCBlive #FCBEspanyol2016-1-6 21:51:40
Two-goal hero Messi was the star of the night, but it was actually another creative maestro, Iniesta, whom the coach went on to single out for unique praise:
FC Barcelona @FCBarcelona
Luis Enrique: "Iniesta has unique peripheral vision. He is a magical player" #FCBlive #FCBEspanyol2016-1-6 21:52:27
As only true winners do, goalscorer Pique brought his side back down to the ground and noted "there is still the second leg to come" when his team-mates could easily get ahead of themselves.
It's almost impossible to see Barca losing their three-goal lead next Wednesday, and it's this kind of mentality that tends to see them reap massive rewards.