Lionel Messi hit a second successive La Liga hat-trick, and his eighth goal in a week, as the magical Argentine inspired Barcelona to a 4-2 win at Real Zaragoza on Sunday.
Messi has now scored eleven of Barcelona's last 14 goals, virtually single-handedly keeping the champions neck-and-neck with Real Madrid at the top of the table. It was his fifth career hat-trick for Barcelona, and followed his triple in the 3-0 win over Valencia last weekend, and double strike in the 4-0 midweek win over Stuttgart which ensured a spot in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
Barcelona, needing a victory to stay level with Real Madrid, who beat Sporting Gijon 3-1 on Saturday, got off to the perfect start with Messi heading them in front after four minutes. Barcelona had to wait until midway through the second half for a second goal when Messi went on mazy run, beating two players before finishing clinically.
He added a third before substitute Adrian Colunga brought Zaragoza briefly back into the match with a brace. Messi though was proving unstoppable and he forced a penalty which Zlatan Ibrahimovic converted in injury time.
"Messi did well, I'll leave it for others to find the adjectives to describe him," said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola. Guardiola gave his backing to Ibrahimovic, who has been struggling in front of goal.
"He has returned to playing how he was in September and October when he was moving very well. The question of him scoring goals is the least important. What is crucial is that he is involved in the play."
Meanwhile, Zaragoza coach Jose Aurelio Gay felt that Messi was the difference between the teams. "We were unable to stop an incredible player. We battled to the end, we never gave up and we were able to hold our own except against Messi," he said. "It was like watching Maradona again but this time with more turns and a lot faster."
Valencia got their Champions League ambitions back on track with a 2-0 win over Almeria. Following three matches without a win, Valencia put to one side defensive absentees and tiredness after playing in the UEFA Europa League in midweek.
Only poor finishing and vital saves from keeper Diego Alves were responsible for Valencia not going ahead before half-time. Alves made an excellent block to deny David Villa and then Ruben Baraja inexplicably missed from a few yards out.
After the break Juan Mata made the breakthrough from a delightful pass by David Silva. Then it was Silva who assured the win by sliding the ball home from close range.
"We knew this was an important game as these are the matches at home where it will be decided whether we qualify for a place in the Champions League. We put in a good display and got the victory," said Valencia coach Unai Emery whose team are third in the table, but a huge 18 points behind the top two.
Mallorca continue run
Real Mallorca continued their impressive home record with an emphatic 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid which took them up to fourth place, four points behind Valencia. With just one loss all season at home it was always going to be a tough task for Atletico and they went behind after ten minutes with an unmarked Victor Casadesus slotting past the keeper.
The Atletico defence was struggling and while Diego Forlan drew them level it was only to be a brief respite as two minutes later Aritz Aduriz headed home. Chances of a comeback were shattered by the second-half dismissal of Raul Garcia, and from there on Mallorca took control. Luis Perea rounded off a poor personal performance with an own-goal and then Felipe Mattioni hit a fine strike to wrap up the scoring in the final minutes.
"We showed that we are a strong and ambitious side who are candidates for a place in Europe," said Mallorca coach Gregorio Manzano. "In the first half we were very good and then after the sending off we were able to control the play more easily."
On Saturday, Real Madrid secured their ninth straight victory after coming from behind to beat Sporting Gijon 3-1. Sporting went ahead through David Barral before Real woke up and hit back through Rafael van der Vaart, Xabi Alonso and Gonzalo Higuain.