Lionel Messi dazzles, Samuel Umtiti imperious in Barca's Copa del Rey win
Barcelona reached the Copa del Rey semifinals for the eighth consecutive year with a comprehensive win over city rivals Espanyol in a party atmosphere at Camp Nou.
With the team trailing in the tie, fans responded to calls to pack out the stadium and registered the second biggest attendance of the campaign after the Super Cup game against Real Madrid. Barca fans also bid an emotional farewell to long time servant Javier Mascherano before kick-off as well as witnessing club-record signing Philippe Coutinho make his debut.
Despite suffering a first defeat in 29 games in the first leg at Cornella-El Prat last week, Barca always looked like going through to the semis from kick-off, dominating the play and barely allowing Espanyol a sniff.
Luis Suarez's diving header put them on their way and Lionel Messi's heavily-deflected strike made them even more at ease and they could have added more goals after the break. Espanyol stayed in the tie and remained within a goal of going through until the final whistle sounded but barely showed any signs they were capable of even mustering a shot, let alone a goal, down the other end.
Eight semi-final appearances in eight years is hard to argue with and while Real Madrid continue to flounder in the cup, Barca's commitment to the oldest competition in Spanish football remains exemplary. Samuel Umtiti was as imperious as ever in his first start in nearly two months and Coutinho had an encouraging if slightly uneventful debut.
Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz kept in line with the Spanish central government's crackdown on protesting in Catalonia and gave Barca no less than four yellow cards for dissent, booking Suarez, Messi, Jordi Alba and Paulinho for daring to call out Espanyol's aggressive tactics.
Manager rating (out of 10)
9 -- Ernesto Valverde learned from Zinedine Zidane's mistake the previous night and made five changes from the side that lost the first leg, playing his strongest starting XI with the exception of sticking with Jasper Cillessen. The switch back to 4-3-3 from 4-4-2 made the team more fluid and they took full advantage of the space they had been deprived at Cornella.
Player ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK, Jasper Cillessen, 6 -- Barely had to save a shot and was only called on to collect tame efforts that landed limply near his goal.
DF Sergi Roberto, 6 -- Switched back to right-back and had a more conservative approach than usual due to the presence of Aleix Vidal, but he carried out his defensive duties astutely.
DF Samuel Umtiti, 8 -- Made his first start since tearing his hamstring on Dec. 2 but looked as fresh as ever, getting to every 50/50 ball before his opponent and always staying in control in possession.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 -- Formed a formidable defensive wall alongside Umtiti and flew in to clear the danger when the occasion merited it.
DF Jordi Alba, 5 -- Had an usually quiet game and was unable to connect with Messi for once.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- Mostly focused on his defensive work in the middle and barely put a foot wrong.
MF Sergio Busquets, 8 -- Dictated the team's play, exerting control and giving them an extra layer of style.
MF Andres Iniesta, 7 -- Returned after a fortnight out injured and gave an extra touch of class in midfield before his customary substitution midway through the second half.
FW Aleix Vidal, 7 -- Delivered a pinpoint cross to Suarez for the goal which settled Barca's nerves and added extra pace to the attack, showing why the club would be unwise to send him on his way in this transfer window even if there is interest from other clubs.
FW Luis Suarez, 7 -- Struck his seventh goal in six games in 2018 with an acrobatic diving header to put Barca on their way but was less sharp as the game continued.
FW Lionel Messi, 9 -- Was his mesmeric best when dribbling past Espanyol's players without a care in the world as they strived in vain to get anywhere near him. Had a touch of fortune with the deflection his shot took off Naldo for his goal but was unlucky not to add to his strikes, hitting the woodwork twice.
MF Paulinho, 6 -- Replaced Vidal and spent most of his time on the pitch trying to hold the ball up.
MF Philippe Coutinho, 7 -- Barca's record signing was given a huge welcoming when he replaced Iniesta and showed bright sparks. Looked to be slightly lacking match fitness though, after almost a month out with a thigh problem.
MF Andre Gomes, NR -- Replaced Rakitic in injury time purely to run the clock down.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.