MADRID - Gonzalo Higuain's clinical
hat-trick fired Real Madrid back to the top of La Liga on Sunday
after three sublime goals from his Argentina team mate Lionel
Messi had briefly lifted Barcelona back above their arch-rivals.
The Spanish giants, level on 65 points from 26 matches,
pulled further away at the top as Barca defeated third-placed
Valencia 3-0 at the Nou Camp and Real romped to a 4-1 victory at
struggling Real Valladolid in the late kickoff.
Real, dumped out of the Champions League by Olympique Lyon
in midweek, led champions Barca on goal difference and Valencia
were 18 points back on 47.
Sevilla, who drew 1-1 with Deportivo
La Coruna on Saturday, were fourth on 44.
After a draw and a defeat in their previous four La Liga
matches, Barca needed a convincing performance at the Nou Camp
to get their title defence back on course and again it was
league top scorer Messi who made the difference.
The European champions found it difficult to exert their
customary dominance in a goalless first half before Messi weaved
through the Valencia defence in the 56th minute and fired a low
shot past goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez.
Substitute Thierry Henry, who scored a hat-trick against
Valencia last season, then set Messi up for his 21st and 22nd
goals of the campaign.
The first came after he cut in from the right and curled the
ball into the far corner and the second from a dinked effort
that left Sanchez on the seat of his pants.
"Messi is the best player in the world and makes everything
easier," assistant Barca coach Tito Vilanova, on the bench in
place of the suspended Pep Guardiola, told a news conference.
Real went top on goal difference last weekend after Barca
were held 2-2 at Almeria but the club were rocked on Wednesday
when Lyon shattered their dream of winning a 10th European title
at their Bernabeu stadium in May.
A trademark Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick set them on their
way in the 28th minute in Valladolid before Higuain scored his
17th, 18th and 19th goals of the campaign to go second behind
Messi in the La Liga scoring charts.
A mistake from goalkeeper Iker Casillas gifted
relegation-threatened Valladolid a goal in the 58th when the
Spain captain's attempted clearance ricocheted into the net off
Real defender Raul Albiol.
"We had to shake off a lot of pressure which had filtered
into the dressing room," Real director general Jorge Valdano
said in a television interview.
"But (Ronaldo's) goal made things easier and opened the way
for the win," the Argentine added.
Barca and Valencia were both missing their leading strikers
at the Nou Camp, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended after his
sending-off in Almeria and Spain international David Villa
sidelined with a shoulder injury.
The best early chance fell to Valencia midfielder Jordi Alba
in the fifth minute. Portuguese defender Miguel Monteira whipped
over a cross and Alba's powerful header flashed narrowly over
After Messi put the home side ahead, Barca keeper Victor
Valdes produced a superb stop to deny substitute Nikola Zigic in
the 68th with the Serb clean through on goal.
Valencia defender Hedwiges Maduro picked up a second yellow
card and was sent off with just over 20 minutes left before
Messi struck twice in two minutes to kill off the game.
In earlier matches, a goal in each half from Joseba Llorente
and Damian Escudero gave Villarreal a 2-0 home win over bottom
Tenerife notched up only their sixth win of the campaign,
beating visiting Espanyol 4-1, relegation-threatened Racing
Santander and Real Zaragoza drew 0-0 and a Fernando Soriano
strike gave Almeria a 1-0 home victory over Malaga.
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