Madrid: If Saturday's La Liga match at home to Real Mallorca was a test to see if Barcelona could cope without Lionel Messi, they passed it with flying colours. The World Player of the Year was ruled out with a damaged hamstring, the first league game he has missed through injury since the 2010-11 season, but Barca made light of his absence with a crushing 5-0 victory that maintained their 13-point lead over second-placed Real Madrid with eight games left.
The performance was all the more impressive given that coach Tito Vilanova rested several key players, including midfielder Sergio Busquets, ahead of Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final, second leg at home to Paris St Germain. Mallorca, who are bottom of the table, are battling to maintain their top-flight status but were swept aside by a masterly Barca performance with Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Andres Iniesta in inspired form.
Fabregas, operating in Messi's roving forward role, scored his first hat-trick since returning to his boyhood club from Arsenal in 2011 and Alexis netted twice and set up two goals. Alex Song, who has struggled to settle since joining from Arsenal, was solid in Busquets's holding midfield position, while centre back Marc Bartra played well enough to suggest he might be an effective replacement for the injured Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano alongside Gerard Pique.
"When you don't have a player like Messi available there's no doubt that you have a problem," assistant coach Jordi Roura told a post-match news conference. "The squad once again showed their enormous quality," he added. "Everyone performed at a high level."
It is not clear whether Messi, who has scored 43 goals in La Liga and eight in the Champions League this season, will be back for Wednesday's game against PSG, when the teams will resume locked at 2-2. If he fails to make it, Fabregas, who came through the club's youth ranks with Messi and has regularly played in the "false nine" position for Spain in recent years, looks to be a fine replacement.
"Cesc adapts perfectly to this 'false nine' position and he played an extraordinary match," Roura said. "It's one more option that we have," he added. "But I would also like to single out Song's performance. In fact, in general everyone played very well."
With fierce competition for places, Fabregas has not been an automatic starter this season. He said he did not think Saturday's performance was his best but noted that in football goals were all-important. "I feel very comfortable playing as a false striker but the best player in the world plays there," he told reporters. "I am still a midfielder," the 25-year-old added.
"We scored early, we were able to see some nice play and the fans had a good time. It's easy to play with Alexis, he's a player with a lot of qualities."
Barca pointed out before the Mallorca game that they had won 13 and drawn one of the La Liga, King's Cup and Champions League games Messi has not featured in over the past three seasons. "There is life beyond Messi," they wrote on their website (www.fcbarcelona.es). "Maybe it's not as beautiful, but it exists."