Barcelona create clear path to title
In the end the only surprise was that Messi took his time about it, not scoring at all until the 57th minute and not getting his second of the game until the 87th. But he got there, and after yet another double in Sunday night's 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou, the Argentine has now scored a brace in his last eight consecutive Barca games.
As most people with a passing acquaintance with football know, that stretched his record calendar-year tally to 90. It is also now 25 in 16 La Liga games so far this season, 34 in all competitions.
All the attention (rightly) focused on Messi's exploits has pretty much taken the spotlight away from Tito Vilanova's ever so smooth transition after stepping up into the head coach spot last summer. In his first season in charge, Barca have more points (46) and have scored more goals (54) after 16 games than Barca managed at the same stage of any season under his predecessor Pep Guardiola.
They now lead title holders Real Madrid by 13 points, and second placed Atletico by nine. No team has not gone on to win the La Liga title having had such a lead at this point. 15 wins, one draw and no defeats is also record breaking form. Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho's Real have dropped more points in their first 16 games than they let slip in all 38 last season.
Barring the emergence of a hitherto unknown Catalan Devon Loch, or Faustino Asprilla's nephew emerging from La Masia, Barcelona will win the 2012/13 title. But Vilanova had to be circumspect when he spoke to the press after the game, reminding reporters of 2009/10 when he was assistant coach and Madrid almost made up a similar points gap.
"I have the luck of having a similar experience before," he said. "We were 11 points ahead of Madrid, but then we had to go to Bernabeu to win the title. Also, Atletico are only nine points behind, and they showed how well they can play. We need to include them in the reckoning."
Not many of the 86,637 people inside the Camp Nou were being so careful as they cheered loudly when Madrid 2-2 Espanyol flashed up on the stadium's screen just after kick-off. If Barca needed a reminder there was still a game to play, they got it on the half hour when Radamel Falcao - who had already missed two clear chances - showed his class by brilliantly out-smarting Sergio Busquets on the halfway line, racing clear of the defence and then coolly chipping Victor Valdes.
Such intelligent decision making and ice-cool composure is becoming the trademark of Vilanova's first season in charge. One such apparently tricky decision handled sensibly has been Adriano Correia supplanting Dani Alves as first choice right-back. And just when Barca needed a boost, the Brazilian, a squad player under Pep Guardiola, got them back level with their first shot on target, cutting inside and curling a 25-yarder to the top corner of Thibaut Courtois's net.
There was still time before the break for Busquets to put Barca in front, with the midfielder also showing confidence and composure to pounce when a corner was not cleared. This was really harsh on Atletico who, with their midfield line of four working extra hard to close off the spaces that Messi and co like to work in, and Falcao being regularly sprung in behind, had carried out their coach Diego Simeone's plan exactly to the letter.
"We played a perfect first half when we had three clear chances to score," said Simeone afterwards. "We closed off all the paths where they could hurt us, then they scored from their first shot. The game was decided by them taking their chances."
Atletico kept working hard after the break, but they seemed to know the jig was up. Simeone took a risk and removed one of his holding midfielders for an attacker, with Suarez replaced by Adrian. Just 60 seconds later Messi finally found room and placed a low left-foot shot from the 'D' out of Courtois's reach. That really was it, and the Argentine finished the scoring late on by robbing Diego Godin inside the Atletico area and lifting the ball over the on-loan Chelsea 'keeper.
This was extra cruel on Atletico. Simeone said there was little else they - or anyone else in La Liga - can do against Barca at the moment.
"Our team is a strong team, we know how to play," he said. "With our weapons we try to be competitive. And today for a long time were. We put in an enormous effort, we showed our souls. We lost to a team who plays in a different league than ours. They are making this a boring league."
When those words were put to Vilanova, the Catalan coach said he did not see things quite that way.
"Many times we have won right at the end, having suffered during the game," he said. "We have not been picking up points easily, we could have dropped more points. The league does not seem easy to me, quite the opposite."
Really, he was only being polite. The only slight ripple for Vilanova to now deal with is the future of David Villa, who was again left out with Alexis Sanchez preferred up front. The Chilean has zero league goals in his ten La Liga games this season, but Tito clearly prefers his all-round game, especially against tougher opposition, and was making no apologies for his selection policy afterwards.
"For a player of such a high level (like Villa), it is not easy, but we have lots of players like that in this squad." he said. "Alves and Mascherano were on the bench today too. Alexis did very good work. We do not just judge on scoring goals, but on all their work in the game, offensively and defensively."
With Sunday morning's papers speculating that Liverpool were poised to bid around €15 million in the January transfer window, the Camp Nou crowd wanted to show their appreciation - and there was loud applause when Villa ran out to warm up. When he entered as a sub with just 11 minutes remaining, it seemed he was the target of supportive chants from the stands of 'Villa quedate' or 'Villa stay'.
At a closer listen, the fans were chanting 'Mourinho quedate' or 'Mourinho stay' - Barcelona fans were taking advantage of another bad week for their former friend to further twist the knife and ask him not to leave the Bernabeu. With their side's 13-point lead, Messi being Messi and Vilanova calmly in control, the Camp Nou could not have been enjoying themselves any more.