On and on he went; past one, past two, past three and past four. Javi Fuego was first, Diego Reyes was next and then Gerard Moreno and David Lopez were after them. All of them were so close and yet not one of them got near him; no one could and no one ever would, not like this.
The Camp Nou has seen Lionel Messi pull off the ridiculous a thousand times over, but somehow it hadn't yet seen it all. Watching the Argentinian weave through an entire Espanyol defence in a space as big as a broom cupboard on Sunday night was like watching the man who can disappear on stage pull the biggest trick of all—making everyone else disappear.
Fuego's attempt to stop Messi left him disoriented and facing the wrong way. Reyes came a little closer, but after him, Moreno had his perception of space forever altered and Lopez was turned into the sort of obstacle presented by a hologram.
It was at that point where you felt a little reminder was necessary: "These are professional footballers, people." They weren't just any footballers, either; they were seriously good ones, players for a rapidly improving team surging their way up the table, owners of the stingiest defence in the land over the last three months. And yet it all counted for nothing.
You shouldn't be able to play like this, but Messi does. Seconds after pulling the biggest trick of them all to tee up Luis Suarez for Barcelona's second goal, he produced another variation of the same thing.
Receiving the ball from Neymar straight after the restart, he squeezed through the tiniest space between Reyes and Lopez, making you wonder whether those myths about rodents being able to compress their own skeletons might also apply to him.
Moreno then discovered the problem with having your perception of space altered, and still drunk from the previous encounter, Fuego ended up on his backside as Messi found Jordi Alba to slot home another.
Watching on from the dugout, Espanyol manager Quique Sanchez Flores sat motionless and almost expressionless before shaking his head. Normally, that's the sight of a man exasperated with his own bunch but not this time.
Flores is a man who has a way for encapsulating the essence of an opponent in a couple of words as few others can—when at Watford, he described Mauricio Pochettino's suffocating Tottenham Hotspur as "animals"—and on Sunday he demonstrated that again. "Messi stops time," he said, per ESPN FC.
Disagreeing with Flores' supernatural assessment is dangerous if you like your Twitter timeline to remain a friendly place. And even if Messi can't stop time completely, he's definitely able to do something to it. His slaloms against Espanyol had you believing that Inception is real and that he's off in a deep dream layer running around to an adjusted timescale.
"We cannot get accustomed to what Leo Messi does," Luis Enrique said at the post-match press conference, speaking of the Argentinian's work in terms that would fit for mystical phenomena. "It is something unique and, here at the Camp Nou, it happens every 15 days."
Suarez added, per Marca: "The way Leo plays is like using a PlayStation." No one in the Bleacher Report office has seen FIFA played like this, though.
On 89 minutes, Messi was at it again. Receiving the ball on the right wing from Sergi Roberto, he dashed forward and then skipped inside, playing the ball to Suarez and continuing his run.
The Uruguayan's chip then left the Espanyol defence looking as though they were observing Halley's Comet pass over the Earth, not realising Messi had breached them again. His one-touch finish through the legs of Roberto when the ball found him might have been the most delicate act of humiliation ever witnessed.
It's in these moments when you feel that if Messi plays like this, what everyone else does is irrelevant. Opponents can be good and Barcelona can be average, but Messi like this can't be stopped or beaten. That's probably true, too, but what the Argentinian's performance on Sunday stole attention from was that, around him, Barcelona looked like Barcelona again—and that matters.
For months now, there's been a growing sense that the Catalans have been losing their identity. Ambushed by Manchester City and Celta Vigo, run over in large stretches by Sevilla and Real Sociedad, pushed to the limit by a woeful Valencia, Barcelona appeared to be drifting, losing their sense of self and moving too far along the stylistic spectrum Luis Enrique has edged them on to.
It wasn't simply the results in a difficult run but the manner of them. Games were unfolding on the terms of others and not on Barcelona's. Sergio Busquets was getting swamped in midfield; control and command of possession had been evaporating; Andres Iniesta was being sorely missed; the defence was being overexposed; the front three, instead of being the icing on the cake, were coming to represent the whole thing, baking dish and all.
Sunday at the Camp Nou was different. From Suarez and Messi in particular, Luis Enrique got the defensive pressure from the front that's too often been missing this season.
A defence-first Espanyol were always going to play deep, but Barcelona's squeezing of them at times left the visitors with a back eight. Not since the Lemmings video game of the mid-1990s had so many bodies been seen standing in a row.
The collapsed shape allowed Iniesta to run a game like only he can—in the way Xavi once did. Several times on Sunday, in addition to all the strings, he pulled a trick or two straight out of the Messi box. It was his evading of two men in the second half, after all, that set up the Argentina international to evade four.
"It's difficult to stop [Messi and Iniesta]," Flores said. "We're talking about [some of] the best footballers playing together. They bring beauty to football."
The difference such domination in the Espanyol half gave to the Barcelona defence was striking. For months, Gerard Pique and company have been consistently run at and isolated with the pitch stretched. Here, though, protected by the structure in front of them, Pique and Javier Mascherano stood on the halfway line, completing the compression of the visitors' available space that would have drawn an approving nod from the late Johan Cruyff.
But like the rest of us, watching in his own way, even Cruyff might have been distracted from the resurfacing of Barcelona's identity by Messi's dream-layer running. "I look at Messi, and he makes me laugh," the Dutchman once said with the highest praise of all.
On Sunday, Messi would have done that again—and a whole lot more, too.
Not Forgotten Amid the Hangover
- Sevilla scored four goals in 10 minutes against Malaga on Saturday night, but that's not all they did. With another impressive performance, Jorge Sampaoli's men reinforced the belief that they are very much in this season's title race. After 16 rounds, the Andalucians sit in third place and have 33 points—they're the first team not named Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid to have so many at this point of the season in five years.
- Of Sevilla's four goals, three went to Luciano Vietto and Wissam Ben Yedder. The two new faces have 14 between them this season in all competitions. "Zipi and Zape," began the headline from Estadio Deportivo, referencing the famous Spanish comic-book characters; "together and dangerous."
- It wasn't always pretty for Atletico Madrid, but they got there in the end. A 1-0 win over Las Palmas thanks to a screamer from Saul Niguez provided some relief for Diego Simeone's men, who put an end to the club's worst run under the Argentinian. "Maybe this break now will be useful for us to rest, get busy and find better solutions so the team can respond better," Simeone said, per ESPN FC.
- Another week, another three goals for Villarreal. Saturday's 3-1 win over Sporting Gijon followed the 3-0 demolition of Atletico, keeping Fran Escriba's men hot on the heels of Sevilla. That Villarreal were at full strength against Sporting, however, will not have gone down well with everyone at Rayo Vallecano.
- Sporting's loss is the only thing stopping Valencia from being in the bottom three going into the Christmas break.
- At this rate, Granada aren't getting out of this and neither are Osasuna. With six straight losses in the league and seven in their last eight, the latter might already be gone.