Hernan Perez and Papakouli Diop were sent off in the second half, the latter for arguing with Luis Suarez, as a second from Messi and strikes from Gerard Pique and Neymar saw the hosts earn revenge for the La Liga draw between these sides at the weekend.
Barcelona had come out of Saturday’s goalless meeting licking their wounds, in more ways than one. Not only had they given Atletico Madrid a chance to usurp them at the top of the table, which Diego Simeone’s side duly did, they were also enraged by the rough treatment they had received from Espanyol at Cornella.
Luis Enrique reacted by picking an extremely strong team in a game where he might usually rest some players, given there could be up to seven more matches in their schedule this January. It meant a first start for Arda Turan, after the six-month freeze-out he endured while Barcelona were still shackled by the FIFA ban which stopped them from registering players.
Barcelona lined up with Arda, No 7, alongside Nos 8, 9, 10 and 11. That’s Andres Iniesta, Suarez, Messi and Neymar. A terrifying attacking set-up, but one which might leave the defence, and Sergio Busquets, in trouble at the back. It certainly seemed like that at first here.
Marco Asensio, on loan at Espanyol from Real Madrid, seared forward, through Barcelona’s half after taking the ball off Dani Alves. He slipped in former Manchester City striker Felipe Caicedo, with Javier Mascherano flailing, unsure of where to turn, and the Ecuador international fired past Marc-Andre ter Stegen, playing his first game in nearly a month.
Barcelona reacted strongly and within a few minutes were level. Suarez appealed for a handball on the edge of the box, but the ball broke to Iniesta. With the referee allowing play to go on, the playmaker slipped in Messi, who netted Barcelona’s first goal of 2016 by curling into the top corner.
They kicked on from there, with Neymar denied a fairly clear penalty when he was hacked down in the box by Javi Lopez. It added fuel to the fire of Barcelona’s complaints about refereeing decisions.
The hosts began to take control and went close when Neymar whistled an effort past the far post, although Espanyol were doing everything they could to break up the game and slow Barcelona down. It was a bad tempered affair to begin with and things became worse, threatening to boil over on several occasions.
Messi then put Barcelona ahead with a brilliant second goal. With a free-kick 25 yards from goal on the right, he launched it into the top-right corner, with the ball smashing off the crossbar and confounding goalkeeper Pau Lopez.
Just before half-time Turan tried to run in and score from close range, but Pau beat him to it and grabbed the ball. The Barca new boy came too close to his head for comfort and the goalkeeper reacted furiously. Suarez tried to break things up but got involved instead, and both he and Pau were booked, while Turan scuttled off to safety.
Things did not calm down after the interval. Gerard Pique scored almost immediately, with Iniesta feeding Messi, who crossed to the defender at the back post. It was his fourth career goal against Espanyol, more than any other side. As we all know, Pique enjoys to aggravate his rivals.
And Espanyol were getting aggravated, although it was Jordi Alba and Suarez who were upsetting the visitors. Perez, unable to handle Barcelona’s left back’s pace, blocked him off mid-run, earning a deserved second yellow card. And only a couple of minutes later, they were down to nine men.
Diop was already in the book but got a straight red for saying something offensive to Suarez. Referee Martinez Munuera was on the scene of the argument and instantly brandished his card after overhearing part of Diop’s outburst, the content of which will surely be revealed sooner, rather than later.
There was time for an unseemly stomp on Messi’s ankle by Pau, which went unpunished, after Turan’s low strike was saved by the goalkeeper, a glaring Suarez miss from close range, and a brilliant fourth goal for Barcelona.
Neymar dribbled the ball to the edge of the area, finding Messi, who completed the one-two with an impudent chip back to the Brazilian to volley home. It essentially ends the tie, of which the second leg takes place next week, and should see Barcelona reach the quarter-finals.
But more importantly for the Blaugrana, this is the start of their new era after the FIFA ban. Turan will have a lot of important contributions to make, and Aleix Vidal, who replaced Dani Alves, may also be able to establish himself in the side.
It means Luis Enrique can rotate again and give his players some more breathing space. After another hectic, bruising clash with their bitter local rivals, that’s just what the doctor ordered.