Barça back on top, Bilbao beaten
© AFP

Barcelona moved back to the top of the Spanish La Liga on goal difference with a comfortable 4-0 win over Elche on Sunday thanks to a hat-trick from Alexis Sanchez.

The Catalans are tied with Atletico Madrid on 49 points with the two set to meet for the first time in the league this season next weekend at the Vicente Calderon.

Lionel Messi was once again watching from the sidelines as he nears a comeback from a hamstring injury and Neymar was left on the bench having recently returned from a Christmas break in Brazil.

However, Sanchez and Pedro Rodriguez once again proved able deputies as they slotted home inside the opening 15 minutes.

Xavi Hernandez also missed a second-half penalty for the hosts, but it mattered little as Sanchez rolled home his second goal from Pedro's pass shortly afterwards.

And the Chilean sealed his first hat-trick for the club with a stunning free-kick 21 minutes from time.

Barça now lead Real Madrid by eight points, but Madrid can cut the gap on the leaders to five with victory over Celta Vigo on Monday.

Barça needed just seven minutes to open their account in 2014 as Jordi Alba's enticing cross from the left was expertly finished by Sanchez at the back post.

Victor Valdes was making his return in goal for Barca after six weeks out with a calf injury, but he was very nearly beaten on 14 minutes when Richmond Boakye fired a powerful drive off the outside of the post.

Moments later, though, Barca had made the game safe as Cesc Fabregas' tenth assist of the season released Pedro to round Elche keeper Tono and roll the ball into an unguarded net.

Pedro could have added to his tally twice more in the first-half as he flashed a shot just past the far post before seeing an attempted chip over Tono also float off target.

Barça had a great chance to extend their advantage four minutes after the break when Cristian Sapunaru upended Fabregas inside the area and was extremely fortunate not to be shown a red card for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.

And Elche had another slice of luck when Xavi side-footed the resultant spot-kick wide of the target. The third goal did finally arrive just after the hour mark as Pedro unselfishly squared for Sanchez to double his tally for the afternoon.

Six minutes later Sanchez sealed his hat-trick with a fine curling free-kick from 25 yards for his 11th goal of the season.

 

Elsewhere, Real Sociedad edged their way past Athletic Bilbao to win the Basque derby at Anoeta with a goal at the end of either half, cutting the gap between themselves and their local rivals in fourth spot to just one point.

Antoine Griezmann put the hosts ahead in the closing stages of the first half and although Ernesto Valverde's side had significantly more possession, they were unable to carve together enough chances to equalise, and in injury time Ruben Pardo provided the finishing touch to a counterattack to seal the points.

In the day's other two matches, Sevilla put together a convincing 3-0 victory over Getafe and Osasuna dispatched Espanyol 1-0.