Sevilla: Barcelona consolidated its leadership position atop the La Liga rankings with a 4-1 victory over Real Betis, a win featuring a hat trick by Lionel Messi against a rival who fought until virtually the last moments of the contest.
Barca, with just 10 matches to go before the La Liga season concludes, is now 10 points ahead of Atletico de Madrid, who lost its match on Saturday against Athletic Club, and 12 points ahead of Real Madrid, reports Efe news.
Although Barca practically has the title in its pocket, Betis must still fight like the devil to remain in European competition next season and is currently in eighth place with 39 points.
Betis, had it won its Sunday match, could have dislodged Valencia from the seventh spot in that pitched battle for European slots, but the fact that his squad was going up against the Barcelona powerhouse did not motivate Betis coach Quique Setien to change the philosophy with which he led the team.
Barcelona, although it controlled the ball just 44 per cent of the time, a record low in league games since the 2004-2005 season, still managed to implement coach Ernesto Valverde's plan switching from a 4-3-3 configuration to 4-4-2, dropping Philippe Coutinho for Arturo Vidal.
With the change, Barcelona was better able to contend with Betis at midfield in Benito Villamarin stadium and - in fact - it was Vidal who won a free kick on which Messi scored, getting the Catalan squad on the board in the 17th minute
Betis scrapped well but never quite found its comfort zone during the intensely competitive match.
It was Messi again in the 46th minute, tapping in a pass by Luis Suarez off his heel.
Suarez had another couple of chances that went embarrassingly wrong, but he was there in the 63rd minute to notch Barca's third tally - and his 128th La Liga goal for Barca - on a great drive through the Betis defence.
Suarez has 18 goals in league play so far this season, but Messi has 29 and continued to be the driving force behind the Barca attack, ultimately scoring his third tally in the 85th minute, but not before Loren had scored for Betis in the 82nd minute, having been sent in to replace Carvalho seven minutes before.
Despite the fact that their team was stomped on, the 54,000 fans assembled in Benito Villamarin gave Messi and his squad a rousing ovation for their performance at the close of the match.
This was Messi's 45th hat-trick overall for Barcelona, one more than Cristiano Ronaldo's 44 during his 9-season-long tenure with Spanish giants Real Madrid.
It was also Messi's 33rd hat-trick in the Spanish League, just one behind Ronaldo's 34 in La Liga.
Ronaldo however leads the hat-trick list, having struck 3 or more goals on 52 occasions in his career.
With IANS inputs