Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde hailed “extraordinary” Lionel Messi after the Argentina playmaker netted a hat-trick in the 5-0 thrashing of Catalan rivals Espanyol at the Nou Camp.
With both Real Madrid and Atletico having dropped points with draws earlier in the day, Barcelona were looking to strike an early blow at the top of the La Liga table.
Messi set Barca on their way with the opening goal after 26 minutes, although he looked to have been offside when collecting a pass from Ivan Rakitic before sidestepping his marker and lashing the ball into the top corner.
Gerard Pique’s header made it 4-0 with three minutes left before £96.8m signing Ousmane Dembele, on as a late substitute, laid a fifth on a plate for Luis Suarez in stoppage time.
It was a 42nd career hat-trick for Messi, 38 of which have come for Barcelona.
“I am happy for Leo who scored three goals and is extraordinary,” Valverde said at a post-match press conference.
“We pulled through a complicated game, because these kinds of matches are always tough.
“Despite the result, it wasn’t easy. Espanyol fought very well, but we have great players like Messi, who scored three goals, and Suarez, who gave everything like the rest of the team.”
The comprehensive win puts Barcelona, who host Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday night, two points clear at the top of the table, having yet to concede a goal in their three La Liga victories.
Despite Barcelona’s positive start, Valverde wants to keep things in perspective as they look to maintain an advantage over champions Real Madrid.
“We are at the beginning of the season and the distances are not significant, but it is better to be ahead than behind,” Valverde said.
“It does not mean anything, but being ahead is always good.”
Valverde had resisted the temptation to throw Dembele straight into the thick of the action following the 20-year-old’s big-money high-profile switch from Borussia Dortmund, but the loudest cheer of the night from the Nou Camp faithful greeted his introduction on 68 minutes, when the result was already secure.
“The idea is to give Dembele minutes, we have a lot of hopes for him and this game was a first step,” the Barcelona coach said.
“His team-mates know that he has real quality.”