BARCELONA -- A Lionel Messi-inspired Barcelona produced one of their best performances of the season to beat Espanyol 4-0 in the Catalan derby and move three points clear at the top of La Liga.
Messi scored two stunning free kicks, opening and closing the scoring, to take his season goal tally to 17 in all competitions as Barca. He also set up Ousmane Dembele for Barca's second; Luis Suarez completed the scoring on his return from injury.
Some of the attacking play in the first half -- with Messi always at the centre of it -- was delightful. Playing like that, coupled with the top teams dropping points regularly, Barcelona are a good bet to retain the league title. A second straight clean sheet, having not had one previously since August, is a further good sign.
There is not much to complain about when you win 4-0 at your local rivals, but Barca did give up some control in the second half, which led to Espanyol chances. It would also have been nice to see Carles Alena, who scored last week against Villarreal, but the young midfielder was left on the bench.
Manager Rating out of 10
7 -- Ernesto Valverde has often been conservative away from home but chose a front three of Messi, Suarez and Dembele for what had been billed "the most equal" derby in a decade. That bravery paid off, with Barca far too good for their neighbours in a three-goal first half.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 6 -- Espanyol did not demand much from him. He did make a couple of saves, but nothing spectacular.
DF Nelson Semedo, 7 -- He has grown in Sergi Roberto's absence; as well as looking more comfortable in attack and possession, he is key to Barca in their defensive transitions. On more than one occasion, his pace prevented a counter-attack.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 -- His every touch was jeered by home supporters following comments he made earlier this year, claiming they are not from Barcelona with reference to the location of their stadium. He played through the jeers, though, and did very well.
DF Clement Lenglet, 6 -- Espanyol packed the midfield, meaning he and Pique were left to deal with Borja Iglesias. Lenglet was alert to his task and even came close to scoring from a couple of set plays.
DF Jordi Alba, 6 -- Slightly restricted in his attacking duties due to the inclusion of Dembele on the left but, bar a second-half mix up with Ter Stegen that resulted in a corner, he did nothing wrong.
MF Sergio Busquets, 6 -- Was pressed by Espanyol's packed midfield and made a couple of mistakes, but in general had things under control.
MF Arturo Vidal, 6 -- Another all-action performance in the middle. He has done well while Arthur has been injured but it is hard to see how he keeps his place when everyone is fit.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- Read the game well and made a number of interceptions to set off attacks. Came off in the second half for a much-needed rest, given he has been one of Barca's most-used players this season.
FW Lionel Messi, 10 -- He might have only been the fifth-best player in the world this year according to the Ballon d'Or voting, but no other player on planet earth can produce such a performance. Messi scored two stunning free kicks -- that is nine and counting in 2018 -- and set up Dembele's goal. His passing and dribbling were on another level compared to anyone else.
FW Luis Suarez, 7 -- Completed 80 minutes in typically robust style on his return from a knee injury. He hit the post after connecting with a looped Messi pass before scoring from a tight angle after being sent through by Dembele.
FW Ousmane Dembele, 8 -- Scored a brilliant goal with his right foot and set up another, for Suarez, with a nicely weighted pass. Dembele wasted a couple of promising opportunities on the break, but this was another step in the right direction.
FW Philippe Coutinho, 6 -- Replaced Dembele in the second half after being a surprise exclusion from the starting line-up. The break might do some good, given he rushed back from an injury last month.
FW Munir El Haddadi, NR -- Came on to give Suarez's knee a rest in the final stages.
MF Denis Suarez, NR -- Given 10 minutes as a reward for his two-goal midweek showing in the cup.