As responses go, this one was pretty emphatic. Barcelona had been below par in their first two games so far this year, with Neymar and Luis Suarez particularly under the spotlight. Against Athletic Club, however, it was just like old times for the MSN.
Neymar had not netted since October 19 prior to this game and midway through the first half, he had gone 1,000 minutes without a goal. He has been contributing, though, and averaged almost an assist per match (0.8) before this cup clash.
He looked to have added another when he put through Luis Suarez for the Uruguayan to slot home in the first half, but the strike was wrongly ruled out for offside. Minutes later, however, the same combination put Barca in front. Neymar crossed and Suarez volleyed home his 100th Barca goal – in only his 120th appearance for the Catalan club.
It was also the 300th goal scored by Lionel Messi (124), Suarez (100) and Neymar (76) since the trio started playing together at the start of the 2014-15 campaign. Three hundred goals in two and a half seasons.
Early in the second half Neymar then won a penalty which he converted himself. It was no more than he had deserved in a bright showing and now 2-0 up on the night and 3-2 ahead in the tie, Barca seemed safe.
But a lapse in concentration at the other end by Sergi Roberto allowed Barcelona-born Enric Saborit to head home for Athletic and as extra-time loomed large, there was also the need for caution – because if the Basques scored, Barca would need two.
More than caution, however, Barca needed inspiration and as in the first two matches of this calendar year, it came from a Messi free-kick. The Argentine, who had netted stunning set-piece strikes against Athletic at San Mames and away to Villarreal in his last two games, added another here as he curled a superb shot in off the post to net from free-kicks in three consecutive matches for the first time in his career.
So after a landmark match for Messi, Suarez and Neymar, Barcelona advance to the last eight of the competition for the seventh season in a row – and with Atletico and (most likely) Real Madrid still in the Copa del Rey, it is going to be a tough one to win this time around.
Having started the year with a loss and a draw, this result will also give Barca some confidence and Luis Enrique hailed his star player afterwards. “Messi doesn’t remind me of anyone,” he said. “There is nobody better than Messi. He makes the others better.”
He is right about that, but on Wednesday the Argentine was ably assisted by both Suarez and Neymar. In the end it was another glorious night for the MSN and with the trident in this form, Barca are still capable of beating absolutely anyone