Messi hat-trick restores Barcelona's La Liga lead

Monday, December 17, 2018

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MADRID, Spain (AFP) — Lionel Messi continued his sublime form by netting his 31st La Liga hat-trick as Barcelona thrashed Levante 5-0 yesterday to regain their three-point lead at the top of the table.

The 31-year-old Argentinian arrived in Valencia having scored two free kicks in last weekend's derby thumping of Espanyol. He took his goals tally for the season to 20 after a virtuoso display, while also teeing up Luis Suarez's 35th-minute opener and Gerard Pique's late fifth.

Barca were under pressure after Atletico Madrid and second-placed Sevilla had both moved level on points with the Catalan giants.

But after resting his key stars for their final Champions League group-stage match against Tottenham in midweek, coach Ernesto Valverde saw his refreshed side cruise to a third-straight league win without conceding a goal.

The reigning Spanish champions broke the deadlock as Messi jinked through a mesmerised home defence and picked out Suarez, who volleyed home.

But Levante, who had ended Barcelona's dreams of going through last season's La Liga campaign unbeaten with a remarkable 5-4 victory in the penultimate game, came close to a quick response as Jose Luis Morales fired over.

The match had all but ended as a contest when Messi bore down on goal two minutes before half-time and drilled low into the net.

He wasted little time after the restart to add his second in the 47th minute, sweeping home Jordi Alba's clever cutback before completing his treble with a simple tap-in from Arturo Vidal's square pass on the hour mark.

Messi has scored five goals in two league games since finishing only fifth in the voting for the Ballon d'Or earlier this month.

A bad evening for Levante worsened with 14 minutes to play, as left back Erick Cabaco was sent off for a reckless lunge on Ousmane Dembele.

Centre back Pique added further gloss to the scoreline in the 88th minute, rampaging forward to collect Messi's pass before keeping his cool and rolling the ball home.

Sevilla reclaimed second place earlier yesterday as second-half strikes from Ever Banega and Pablo Sarabia sealed a 2-0 win over Girona.

Elsewhere, Villarreal were plunged further into crisis as Samuele Longo's 93rd-minute strike saw them held to a 2-2 draw at bottom club Huesca.

Villarreal, who replaced Javier Calleja with Luis Garcia Plaza as coach in midweek, are only one point and one place above the relegation zone.

Real Betis eased to a 3-1 win at Espanyol to move into fifth place, after a third-successive league victory.

Giovani Lo Celso scored and missed a penalty for Betis, with Cristian Tello also on the scoresheet.

Espanyol, who led the table earlier in the season, have lost five straight matches to slip into the bottom half.


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