Lionel Messi served up one of his finest performances of the season by scoring a pair of goals in a 2-3 victory for Barcelona over Athletic Club on Wednesday night at San Mames.
Inaki Williams gave the Basque hosts a dream start, but Messi then took over by first helping set up Pedri's equaliser before scoring a pair of goals thanks to some excellent finishing. Only an error that gifted Athletic's Iker Muniain a late goal was the stain on the Argentine's night.
After an average display over the weekend in Huesca, this Barcelona win will surely be the Three Kings gift that supporters were hoping to receive.
The big change in the starting XI made by Ronald Koeman was the return of Antoine Griezmann in attack with Ousmane Dembele and Messi, meaning Martin Braithwaite was relegated back to the bench.
Athletic came flying out of the gates and enjoyed a dream start with a goal inside the first three minutes through Williams. Raul Garcia played an inch-perfect pass against Barcelona's high back line, allowing Williams to race toward goal and finish past goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen for a 1-0 lead.
Back came Barcelona and Sergino Dest was set up nicely by Messi and Griezmann only to fire right at Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simon. The 1-1 equaliser would come in short order though, with Messi floating a deep pass that met the rushing Frenkie de Jong, who played back to Pedri and it was a strong header into net by the youngster.
Barcelona looked to take the lead before the break and an exquisite combination between Messi and Pedri ended with the Argentine finishing into net for a 1-2 lead. Messi played a pass into a barely onside Pedri, whose backheel fell perfectly for Messi to surgically finish inside the near post for the goal.
Messi was in fine form and he nearly made it three just shy of the hour mark with a left-footed bullet that grazed the post and deflected out. Messi's next effort would strike the woodwork again, but this time it banked in as he took a Griezmann pass and one-time in off the crossbar and into net for a 1-3 advantage.
Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simon's goal was under assault from Messi and the Argentine pinged another one off the pole after a clever dummy from Griezmann.
Koeman's first changes came with a quarter-hour to go and both on the right wing, with Oscar Mingueza replacing Dest and Braithwaite on for Dembele.
Barcelona were not a strong going forward after the changes, and an error from Messi of all people gifted Athletic their second of the night, with Alex Berenguer picking off Messi's ill-advised pass and finding Muniain, who finished to cut the lead to 2-3.
It made for a nervy finish in stoppage time, but in the end, Barcelona got the job done to stay perfect in the new year.
Source: Marca / Arch Bell