MADRID - Lionel Messi's brilliant hat-trick
fired Barcelona to a 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid on Saturday
that set a record for consecutive La Liga victories of 16 and
stretched their lead over Real Madrid at the top to 10 points.
The Argentine World Player of the Year struck twice in 12
first-half minutes and again in the 79th to move two goals clear
of Real forward Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the La Liga
scoring charts with 24 goals.
The victory lifted the champions to 61 points from 22
matches and beat the previous best for straight league wins set
by Alfredo Di Stefano's Real in the 1960/61 season.
Villarreal earlier squandered a chance to close within three
points of Real and lost their unbeaten home record when they
slumped to a 1-0 defeat against promoted Levante.
Athletic Bilbao boosted their chances of a place in Europe
when goals from David Lopez, Gaizka Toquero and Fernando
Llorente gave them a 3-0 home win over 10-man Sporting Gijon.
The victory lifted the Basque club to fifth place on 38
points, a point above Espanyol who were three goals down by the
18th minute at Almeria and eventually lost 3-2.
Atletico were looking for a morale-boosting result at the
Nou Camp that would keep their hopes of European qualification
alive but any prospects of derailing the Barca express were
effectively snuffed out by two moments of Messi magic.
His first goal in the 17th minute was a trademark dash in
from the right wing and he left several opponents trailing
before arrowing a low shot past David De Gea.
Spain striker David Villa slipped the ball through for Messi
to score his second in the 29th. Atletico captain Antonio Lopez
got a foot to the ball but Messi burst clear and clipped a shot
in off the right-hand post from close-range.
The 23-year-old had a powerful header acrobatically saved by
De Gea before he beat Diego Godin to a loose ball and prodded it
over the line to complete a memorable treble.
"I am happy with the win against a tough team who are not
going through the best time and that could have made things hard
for us," Messi told Spanish television.
"I am not thinking about being league top scorer at all," he
added. "The important thing is that we continue this winning run
as we have Real Madrid just behind us and we know they will
fight to the end."
Atletico are seventh on 30 points, seven behind Espanyol and
eight adrift of Bilbao.
In other games on Saturday, Getafe thumped visiting
Deportivo La Coruna 4-1 and Real Mallorca were held to a 1-1 draw
at Osasuna as Japanese midfielder Akihiro Ienaga made his debut
for the Balearic Islands club.
Real Zaragoza and visitors Racing Santander played out a 1-1
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