Ousmane Dembele scored and laid on a hat-trick of assists as Barcelona ripped apart Athletic Bilbao in a 4-0 win in La Liga on Sunday, to stay three points behind leaders Real Madrid.

The French winger was at his thrilling best after being brought back into the side and challenged to make the difference by his coach Xavi Hernandez, ruining former Barca manager Ernesto Valverde’s return to Camp Nou.

Dembele netted the opener and then created goals for Sergi Roberto and Robert Lewandowski in the first half as Barcelona danced around Athletic.

Ferran Torres fired home in the second half after Dembele found him in the area to complete the drubbing.

“It’s the life wingers have, ups and downs, they have to go for it, it’s what I always say,” said Xavi.

“Some days it works, others not, but they have to go for it. Ousmane made the difference.”

It was Valverde’s first game facing Barcelona since being sacked in January 2020 after winning two league titles, but it did not go to plan for him.

“It’s been a horrible day because we lost 4-0,” said the coach. “They punished us today.”

Just as three goals in an eight-minute spell helped Barcelona vanquish Villarreal on Thursday, another quick-fire treble killed off Athletic.

“We came out very strongly, we knew that they are intense and we had to match them,” captain Sergio Busquets told Movistar. “We overpowered them in the middle and we were accurate.

“I am sure Xavi is happy. The objective is to win and to do it in a complete way, playing well. This elevates the level of the team.”

Xavi selected Pedri to operate on the left of the attack in his 4-3-3 formation, as Barcelona legend Andres Iniesta did on occasion –- giving further credence to the already frequent comparisons between the two.

It increased the team’s fluidity, as did a double pivot of Busquets and Frenkie de Jong, although the star dust was added by Dembele.

Dembele takes his chance

The French winger took the game by the scruff of the neck in the opening stages and it was no surprise when he broke the deadlock in the 12th minute.

Dembele’s long-range strike was parried by Unai Simon, but Barcelona kept the move alive and Lewandowski whipped in a cross for him to head home.

Barcelona doubled their lead six minutes later, when Roberto played a one-two with Dembele, receiving the Frenchman’s perfectly weighed pass and firing a deflected effort past Simon.

The third followed with Dembele involved again, feeding Lewandowski, who turned exquisitely in the area and slammed home. It was his 12th of the season in La Liga in 11 appearances, the division’s runaway top scorer.

Despite Barcelona’s impending Champions League elimination and Clasico defeat, the supporters remain behind Xavi, chanting his name when he protested about Dani Garcia brutally colliding with Gavi.

“Today we tried something and it turned out perfectly, other days it hasn’t,” said Xavi.

“This win (has the stamp) of the players, I just have an idea. It’s the players who win the games. I’m only here to help them play better and get out ideas.”

Torres added the fourth, teed up by Dembele, who was afforded an ovation from supporters as he was replaced by La Liga debutant Pablo Torre.

A double goal-line clearance by Busquets and then Eric Garcia denied Athletic a late consolation.

Earlier Antoine Griezmann hit a brace, including one goal direct from a corner, to earn Atletico Madrid a 2-1 win at Real Betis.

“I wanted to put (the corner) in with a tight angle, hard, and in the end there was a bit of luck too,” Griezmann told Movistar.

“I told the referee I had never scored a goal from a corner, I’m very happy.”

Elsewhere Villarreal winger Alex Baena was sent off for lifting his shirt to reveal a tribute message to late club vice-president Jose Manuel Llaneza during a 2-1 win over Almeria.