Lionel Messi came on at half-time to rescue Barcelona by scoring twice, including his first goal from open play this season, in a 5-2 victory over Real Betis on Saturday.
Messi had been rested by Ronald Koeman but was thrown on with the game in the balance after Antoine Griezmann missed a penalty in the Argentinian’s absence, before Antonio Sanabria cancelled out Ousmane Dembele’s opener.
But within four minutes of his introduction, Messi gave Griezmann an open goal with a superb dummy and then scored twice himself, the first a penalty that saw Betis’ Aissa Mandi sent off for a handball on the line.
In between, Loren Moron had given Betis brief hope but Messi’s second and a late strike from Pedri ensured Barcelona ended their four-match winless run and climbed to eighth in La Liga.
Koeman’s assistant Alfred Schreuder said before the match Messi was “not fresh” but the 33-year-old gave a resounding answer to those suggesting his performances this season have been evidence of decline.
Even before registering his first goal of the season from open play, Messi had turned this game, putting Barcelona in control with his brilliant dummy for Griezmann and then a penalty won from a Dembele shot, teed up by his pass.
Griezmann also got his goal with Messi on the pitch but was unable to prove a point without him.
Despite a lively opening half an hour, Griezmann missed a penalty before Messi scored his and the Frenchman was eventually substituted, pictured sat in the stands with a gloomy expression while Barca romped to victory.
Neither team seemed too interested in defending early on as Griezmann and Ansu Fati fired off two shots each while Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to be alert to push away William Carvalho’s header.
Barca broke through after 22 minutes when Dembele cut inside onto his left foot before hammering a finish past Claudio Bravo for his first league goal in 13 months.
When Mandi conceded a penalty after sliding in on Ansu at the front post, Griezmann had his chance to add a goal to his busy first-half display.
But Griezmann missed, a tame shot easily saved by Bravo, before Betis scored, Sanabria finishing after Cristian Tello had again surged clear down the left.
Messi came on and four minutes later Barca were ahead, the Argentinian scuttling to meet Jordi Alba’s cross at the front post, only to step over the ball, fooling his marker and the goalkeeper, to leave Griezmann with an open net.
Eleven minutes later, Messi made it 3-1 with a penalty, won after his pass had set up Dembele for a shot that was blocked on the line by the arm of Mandi, who was sent off.
Moron gave Betis hope with 17 minutes left when he finished off Alex Moreno’s pullback but Messi made sure, latching onto Sergi Roberto’s flick and smashing in his second and Barca’s fourth. Pedri made it five in injury-time.