Messi makes sure Barça break record
Lionel Messi scored another sublime hat-trick for Barcelona tonight as the Catalans strolled to a 3-0 victory over Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou to break Real Madrid's 50-year-old record of 15 straight league victories.
Real's hero back in 1961 was Alfredo di Stefano, but Barça's main man in 2011 is another Argentinian - Messi. The 23-year-old opened the scoring with a trademark low finish from the edge of the box after 17 minutes, before adding a second from close range just short of the half-hour mark and scrambled home a third late in the game to move Barça ten points clear - albeit provisionally - of Real at the top of the table.
Having rested a host of first-team players for the 3-0 win over Almeria in the Copa del Rey semi-final second leg on Wednesday night, Pep Guardiola fielded his strongest possible side for this match. Only captain Carles Puyol was missing - through injury - from that line-up, but Uruguay striker Diego Forlan was a surprise omission from the Atletico XI.
Atletico had lost their last two matches and came into this game in something of a crisis. And they looked unlikely to leave any better off as the match got under way. Messi, as usual, proved a constant menace to the visitors' defence. The Argentina forward found himself clean through early on, but was ruled offside and fired wide in any case.
Messi opens the scoring
It was a warning for Atletico, though, and it was not heeded by the visitors, who found themselves behind to a goal 'made in Messi' after 17 minutes. The FIFA Ballon d'Or winner took up possession just outside the Atletico area, sidestepped two markers and unleashed a crisp low drive which beat David de Gea and nestled into the corner of the net.
It was all made to look so simple, but Messi proved he is human three minutes later, when he blasted wide with only De Gea to beat. Normal service was quickly resumed for the South American, however, as he pounced on a loose ball which Antonio Lopez had been unable to clear and poked the ball past De Gea and into the same corner as his first to make it 2-0 after 28 minutes.
The game's intensity dropped notably after that, with Barça now in the clear and Atletico offering little as an attacking outlet. Sergio Aguero almost provided a moment of inspiration for the visitors just before half-time, but was left without support and was eventually crowded out by the Barça defence.
Forlan came on for Atletico after the break and the Madrid side improved instantly. They almost got a goal back after 53 minutes, but Gerard Pique headed Filipe Luis' shot off the line after Forlan's mis-hit effort fell kindly to the Brazilian full-back. Messi then showcased a lesser-known side of his game as he tracked back 60 yards to make an important tackle, before beating two Atletico players with some sublime skill which drew roars of approval from the Nou Camp faithful.
Back at the other end, the Argentinian came close to his hat-trick after 72 minutes, but his powerful header was pushed over by De Gea. Pedro then curled wide five minutes later as Barça sought a third. And it came, inevitably, from Messi. This one was a scrappy affair as the Argentinian bundled the ball over the line from close range after De Gea had saved David Villa's initial effort and Diego Godin had been unable to clear from the ground.
The goal took Messi's Primera Division tally for the season to 24 goals - one more than Cristiano Ronaldo - after 22 games, and the Barça forward has Hugo Sanchez's long-standing record of 38 very much in his sights. Of greater importance to the Catalan club, however, is the difference at the top of the table, which is now ten points over Barça's fierce rivals Real, who host Real Sociedad at the Bernabeu tomorrow.