Hat-trick by Messi the key as Barca rout Espanyol

Lionel Messi scoring his first goal in the emphatic 5-0 victory over local rivals Espanyol in their LaLiga encounter on Saturday.
Lionel Messi scoring his first goal in the emphatic 5-0 victory over local rivals Espanyol in their LaLiga encounter on Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID • Lionel Messi's hat-trick saw Barcelona move four points clear of Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga, as Ousmane Dembele marked his debut with an assist in a 5-0 rout of local rivals Espanyol on Saturday.

Earlier, Real paid for the absence of the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo and a series of missed chances by Gareth Bale as they were held to a shock 1-1 home draw by newly-promoted Levante.

For all Barca's off-field problems, Ernesto Valverde's men have taken the maximum points from their opening three games.

Messi's opener needed a huge slice of luck, as he was wrongly not flagged offside from Ivan Rakitic's through ball before blasting into the top corner.

Barca's second arrived thanks to a counter-attack from an Espanyol corner led by Messi and Luis Suarez, before Jordi Alba's low cross was slotted home by Messi.

"It is a privilege to play with the best player in the world," said Suarez. "Game by game he keeps showing that he will be around for a long time to come."

Messi completed his hat-trick with another sharp finish from Alba's cut-back.

Dembele has the unenviable task of replacing the departed Neymar and Barca's €105 million (S$170.7 million) man had to wait until 22 minutes from time for his debut, as he replaced Gerard Deulofeu to a standing ovation.

The 20-year-old showed why Barca have made him the third most expensive footballer ever, as his pinpoint cross was swept home by Suarez to round off the scoring after Gerard Pique had headed home Barca's fourth goal.

Suarez's goal was met with chants for club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to resign.

At the Santiago Bernabeu, Real paid a heavy price for their failure to replace Alvaro Morata following his £80 million (S$143.2 million) move to Chelsea as striker Karim Benzema hobbled off midway through the first half with a hamstring injury against Levante.

The Frenchman is now expected to be sidelined for at least a month.

Bale was forced to play as an auxiliary centre-forward and he had a huge chance to turn the game around, but was denied by a smart stop from the Levante goalkeeper as he tried to curl the ball home with the outside of his left foot.

"We can't be happy with our performance," said Real manager Zinedine Zidane.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Hat-trick by Messi the key as Barca rout Espanyol'. Print Edition | Subscribe