Alexis nets three as Barca beat Elche
BARCELONA, Spain (AP)
Alexis Sanchez netted a hat trick to lead Barcelona's 4-0 win over Elche at Camp Nou on Sunday, setting up a highly anticipated showdown with Atletico Madrid next week between the top two teams in La Liga.
With Lionel Messi still out rehabilitating his left leg injury and Neymar watching from the dugout, Barcelona turned to Alexis and its core of Spain internationals for a second straight victory on either side of the two-week winter break.
Alexis opened the scoring in the seventh minute and struck twice more in the 63rd and 69th after Pedro Rodriguez had doubled the advantage and Xavi Hernandez had missed a penalty kick.
Barcelona's victory was its ninth in as many league games at home this season, and it remained tied on points with Atletico atop the standings. The pressure is now on Real Madrid come Monday when it hosts Celta Vigo trailing the pacesetting pair by eight points.
Alexis and Pedro lead the team with 11 goals each in league play, tying them with Real Sociedad's Antoine Griezmann as the league third-highest scorers this campaign.
Both players were given ovations when substituted late, with Neymar coming on for the final minutes.
Elsewhere, Carlos Bacca scored one goal and set up two more to help Sevilla beat Getafe 3-0 at home, provisionally lifting the club into sixth place with its fifth victory in a six-game unbeaten streak in the league.
Messi tore his left hamstring on Nov. 11 and only returned to training with Barcelona this week, having spent time in Argentina doing rehab. He was left off the squad for Sunday's game and coach Gerardo Martino will have to decide if he brings him back against Getafe on Wednesday in the Copa del Rey to get him up to speed before the big trip to Atletico next Sunday.
Alexis charged behind his marker to meet Jordi Alba's cross from the left and volley it into the corner of the net to get Barcelona rolling.
Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes looked a tad rusty in his first action in six weeks returning from injury in the 14th when Yiadom Boakye blasted the ball off the post, but he wasn't tested again after Pedro made it 2-0 two minutes later.
Pedro followed up his hat trick at Getafe in the last round by meeting Cesc Fabregas' weighted pass behind the defense, then used one touch to round goalkeeper Antonio ''Tono'' Rodriguez before sliding the ball inside the near post.
Xavi, also back from injury, wasted penalty three minutes after halftime when he sent his spot kick wide after Fabregas had been fouled in the area by Elche's Ionut Sapunaru.
But Pedro took Andres Iniesta's through ball and squared for Alexis to fire into the open net in the 63rd. Moments later Alexis earned a free kick from a foul outside the box that the Chile forward promptly curved over the defensive wall with a right-footed strike.
The game's only negative for Barcelona was defender Marc Bartra apparently hurting his leg late on.
Later, Athletic Bilbao hosts Real Sociedad with the Basque clubs both contending for fourth place, and Espanyol visits Osasuna.