Messi leads best Barcelona display of season; Benzema returns to top form

By Dermot Corrigan Share Tweet 35 minutes ago Messi leads best Barcelona display of season; Benzema returns to top form

Barcelona turned on all their style against Celta Vigo, putting to rest any doubt about their quality this season.
After a pair of high-scoring performances in La Liga, Luis Enrique is hopeful his side can replicate that against PSG.
Karim Benzema stepped up for Real Madrid with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale out to down Eibar 4-1.

Five thoughts from the weekend in La Liga, as Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema star, Atletico Madrid keep Valencia in their place and ironies aplenty arise in the relegation battle.

1. Messi answers the Luis Enrique question

The big question around the Camp Nou on Saturday evening was how Barcelona would react to Luis Enrique confirming his departure this summer and the answer was pretty simple: by performing better and blowing Celta Vigo away 5-0 at home, as the team's talisman Messi led what was their best match of the season.

Barca had hit the post twice in the same move before Messi opened the scoring on 24 minutes, turning deep in the Celta half, dodging past a couple of tackles and curling an unstoppable low shot into the net from 20 yards out. It was soon 2-0, as Neymar invented a sumptuous lobbed finish from Messi's assist. From there it was only a matter of how many, with Ivan Rakitic, Samuel Umtiti and Messi again (another super solo goal) on the scoresheet by the end.

The Argentina No. 10 was the star and now leads the European Golden Shoe race with 23 goals already this season, having upped his rate considerably in recent weeks. Just as important was a much better all-round team performance, with Sergio Busquets the most obviously improved.

It still seems unlikely that Messi can inspire Barca to turn around their 4-0 Champions League deficit against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday night, but if he keeps up this form they look narrow favourites to send Luis Enrique off with his third La Liga trophy in three seasons at the club.

Barcelona's talisman Lionel Messi scored twice in what was ultimately his team's best performance of the campaign so far.

2. Benzema returns to his best right on time

Benzema's 350th game for Madrid was one of his best and well timed, too, with fellow galacticos Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo missing for Saturday's trip to Eibar.

Madrid travelled to the small Basque town under pressure following dodgy recent form, with Ronaldo rested and Bale suspended. There was no stress, though, as Benzema scored two quick goals, assisted James Rodriguez's third and was involved in Marco Asensio's fourth to fire Los Blancos' best performance in months.

The all-round contribution of each of the three attackers showed again that Zinedine Zidane's side looked more compact without all of their "BBC" stars up front. Madrid also won without much assistance from usual backups Isco and Alvaro Morata, although club captain Sergio Ramos felt the need to deny that anyone in the squad had questioned the apparently unsettled young Spain internationals' commitment to the Real Madrid cause.

Everyone knows that Zidane will return Bale and Ronaldo to the starting XI for Tuesday's Champions League game at Napoli, but the "JAB" did the business at Ipurua on Saturday.

Karim Benzema scored twice and assisted another for Real Madrid in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

3. Griezmann and Atletico ease Valencia aside

Diego Simeone's 200th La Liga game in charge of Atletico Madrid brought one of the most comfortable victories, with Antoine Griezmann's low early strike, Kevin Gameiro's deflected 20-yarder and Griezmann's late poacher's effort enough to see off Valencia 3-0 on Sunday afternoon.

When Simeone arrived in Dec. 2011, Valencia were clearly Spain's third-best team, but a lot has changed since then. Los Che have had 10 coaches in five years (counting serial caretaker Voro just once) and have slumped down and down while Atletico rose close to the top and stayed there.

Voro's current team are capable of raising themselves occasionally, as shown in their 2-1 win over Madrid 10 days ago. After that game some around Mestalla spoke about a possible late charge for European qualification, however their pretty limp performance in their last visit to the Estadio Vicente Calderon showed that idea to be more than optimistic.

Simeone said on Saturday that this was the most difficult of his seasons in charge of Atletico, adding that this would make success at the end even sweeter. In La Liga terms this now looks like holding off the challenge of Real Sociedad for fourth spot, as Sevilla — who play at Alaves on Monday — remain well out of sight in third.

Antoine Griezmann provided two goals in Atleti's home defeat of Valencia.
Antoine Griezmann's brace helped Atletico cruise to a comfortable win at Valencia in Diego Simeone's 200th La Liga game.

4. Granada's loan woes in the spotlight

Last summer, Granada's new Chinese owners and their Catalan advisers gambled big on the loan market. Thirteen different footballers arrived on season-long deals from 12 different clubs around Europe. Then, on Saturday, it was two players the Andalusians let go to make room in the squad who pushed them much closer to relegation in a 1-0 defeat at Leganes.

Lucas Alcaraz's team clearly went to fellow strugglers Leganes aiming to get a point and were just seven minutes from achieving that objective, but then the home side put together a well-worked counter-attack and substitute Darwin Machis knocked home the game's only goal.

That was the same Machis who Granada loaned to Leganes for this season, meaning the Venezuela international was one of the few players on the Butarque pitch actually owned by Granada. Another was midfielder Ruben Perez, also borrowed by Leganes for the year, who had a tidy match in the centre of the park.

Leganes managed to avoid "fear clauses" in both the deals for Machis and Perez, meaning Granada were not protected from their own players coming back to haunt them. Alcaraz was understandably frustrated when asked about the irony afterwards.

"I don't write the contracts," the veteran coach said through gritted teeth. "You can always read these clauses two ways. You can call them 'fear clauses,' but if you do not put them, you can end up looking stupid." Quite.

5. Mel a boost for Depor

The weekend's other relegation six-pointer took place Sunday morning, as Deportivo La Coruna ended an excellent week with a 1-0 win at Sporting Gijon.

Depor had lost four on the trot when previous coach Gaizka Garitano was fired last weekend, but they got a 1-1 draw at home to Atletico Madrid in Pepe Mel's first game in charge last Thursday. And Pedro Mosquera's header at a corner, really poorly defended by Sporting, was enough to give them their first win since December. The three points also meant a nice four-point cushion over the drop zone.

Sporting seemed to have turned a corner when Rubi replaced Abelardo Fernandez as coach in January, but gloom has returned to El Molinon after just one point from their last four games. They are now stuck down in 19th place, which counts as a warning for Depor, as honeymoon periods can end quite quickly.

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan

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