Record-breaker Messi sends Barcelona 10 points clear

Barcelona moved 10 points clear of Atletico Madrid atop La Liga thanks to another inspirational display from captain Lionel Messi.

Barcelona celebrates with captain Lionel Messi who scored twice in the first half.   -  Getty Images

Lionel Messi broke yet another Barcelona record as he scored a stunning hat-trick in a superb 4-1 win at Real Betis, sending Ernesto Valverde's men 10 points clear at the top of La Liga.

Atletico Madrid's surprise defeat at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday gave Barca the chance to stretch its advantage at the summit going into the final international break of the season. Messi scored twice in the first half at the Benito Villamarin, his first an unstoppable free-kick and his second coming moments before the interval, with Luis Suarez - who hurt his ankle late on - adding a third after the break.

On the day Messi drew level with Andres Iniesta on 674 appearances for Barca, the captain moved ahead of Xavi to set a new club record for featuring in wins - this victory becoming his 477th.

READ | Messi surpasses Xavi to record most Barcelona wins

And after Loren Moron's late consolation for Betis, Messi capped his latest record with a wonderful third goal to add yet another match ball to his collection.

Messi, sporting a trimmed beard, opened the scoring with a typically perfect free-kick. Arthur was bundled to the ground on the edge of the D and Messi beat former Espanyol goalkeeper Pau Lopez with a stunning strike from the resulting set piece. Lopez then saved another Messi free-kick from slightly further out before Arthur's fine interception prevented a Betis equaliser.

Suarez shot tamely at Lopez when presented with a great chance by Messi but the duo combined for the Barca captain's second goal on the stroke of half-time. Suarez's sensational backheel pass was perfectly placed into the path of Messi, who was never going to miss, and Barca made certain of its victory in the 63rd minute.

The striker had just drilled a great chance wide, taking out his frustration on the advertising boards, but Suarez got his name on the scoresheet with a fine finish after a dazzling solo run.

Loren scored a late consolation for Betis after a pass from fellow substitute Diego Lainez, but Barca's lead atop La Liga increased and Messi was left to celebrate another record after completing his treble with a outrageous chip that clipped the crossbar as it beat Lopez.

He even hit the post in stoppage time, by which time Suarez was limping heavily.

Lionel Messi moved ahead of Xavi to set a new club record for featuring in wins - this victory becoming his 477th.   -  AP

 

What does it mean? Treble in Barca's sights

A place in the Copa del Rey final against Valencia is already secured and, with a 10-point cushion from Atletico, Barca is virtually certain to defend its LaLiga crown. 

Manchester United provides a tough assignment in the quarterfinals of the Champions League but treble talk will intensify now regardless of how often Ernesto Valverde plays down his side's chances.

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Messi in top form

During the week Messi scored twice and provided two assists as Lyon was routed 5-1 at Camp Nou in the Champions League. The Argentina attacker - set to make his international return after nine months away - hit those heights again as he took his La Liga tally to 29 goals. Messi, who even earned acclaim from the home fans after his third goal, is certainly delivering the performance levels Barca will need if it is to win the treble.

Moment to forget for Canales

At 2-0, Betis was still in the game. When Sergio Canales ran clear on Marc-Andre ter Stegen's goal he could have given his side, 4-3 winners at Camp Nou in the reverse fixture, hope.

But Canales, uncapped but named in Luis Enrique's Spain's squad this week, lost his nerve and knocked the ball wide with a horrible touch, not even managing to get a shot away. He will have been the most relieved man in the stadium to see the offside flag belatedly raised.

What's next?

Barcelona hosts Espanyol in a Catalan derby in its first La Liga game after the international break on March 30. Betis is away to Rayo Vallecano a day later.