Late Messi brace bags Barça victory
Lionel Messi scored two late goals as Barcelona beat ten-man Hercules tonight to preserve their 100 per cent away record in the Primera Division and move seven points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the table.
Pedro gave Barça the lead two minutes before the interval, but the win was still in doubt until Messi's late intervention, with the Argentina forward bagging two goals - after Javier Farinos had been sent off - in the last three minutes to give the Catalans a comfortable victory in the end.
The win erased memories of Barça's surprise home defeat at the hands of the promoted side earlier on in the campaign and leaves them seven clear of Real, who visit Osasuna tomorrow. Coach Pep Guardiola named an extra-strong line-up, with only captain Carles Puyol missing from his best XI.
The Catalans peppered the home side's goal in glacier-like conditions, quickly finding Hercules' soft centre in the early exchanges. Messi was looking fresh and saw an early effort saved by Juan Calatayud before dragging a crisp shot just wide moments later.
Pedro also missed two great chances for Barça before the half-hour mark, although David Trezeguet almost gave the home side the lead in between, when he fired wide with only Victor Valdes to beat.
David Villa and Dani Alves came close later in the half, but Pedro finally broke the deadlock two minutes before the break, when he raced onto Xavi's pass and beat Calatayud with a neat finish at the near post. Villa then flashed a shot just wide after the break and Xavi came close with a curled effort moments later.
At the other end, Nelson Haedo Valdez - who scored both Hercules goals in the Alicante-based side's 2-0 victory at the Camp Nou at the beginning of the season - tested Barça goalkeeper Valdes with a drive from the edge of the box. But the Catalans remained in control and looked the most likely to score as the game wore on.
Xavi had an effort well saved by Calatayud and Pedro saw an effort ruled out later on, but the end of the game was all about Messi. The Argentina forward twice shot wide when he looked certain to score and saw another shot saved by Calatayud, but he was - as usual - to have the last laugh, scoring twice in the last three minutes.
By that time, though, Hercules were down to ten men following the dismissal of midfielder Farinos. Farinos, one of the stars of the great Valencia side that reached consecutive UEFA Champions League finals at the turn of the century, had been sidelined for nine months and was making his comeback. But it lasted just 16 minutes as he was dismissed for a second bookable offence with five minutes left.
Messi missed a great chance to make it 2-0 shortly afterwards, but finally got his name on the scoresheet moments later, when he fired a shot just inside the post after making space for himself on the edge of the box.
And the 23-year-old made it 3-0 with a minute left, when he poked home Alves' low cross from close-range.Barça move seven clear for now, while Hercules - following a third straight defeat - are just four points clear of the drop zone.