With Messi’s hat trick, Barcelona thrash Rayo Vallecano and move to top of La Liga

Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez celebrate Barcelona's sixth goal against Rayo Vallecano.

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At just after five minutes past midday, Central European Time, on Sunday, Barcelona retook the summit of Spain’s Primera Division. Boy, did it feel good to be there after a long time away. They had fallen from top place on the first day of November, they had missed previous opportunities to leapfrog Real Madrid in the four months since, and although those slip-ups serve as reminders that Barca are still a team who cannot entirely trust the many signs of positive momentum, their 6-1 win over Rayo Vallecano at a sun-kissed Camp Nou felt like an authentic stride towards the title.

Barcelona now lead Madrid, who lost 1-0 the previous evening at Athletic Bilbao, by a point. The ‘clasico’, the meeting of La Liga’s mightiest pair, takes place in two weeks, in Barcelona, where if it is another spring Sunday masquerading as midsummer, the players of both teams can expect to sweat buckets. And Barcelona right now will look forward to that far more than a lethargic Madrid.

Barca were wide awake from kick-off. Luis Suarez scored the goal that effectively put them top, easing past a Rayo defence who play high up the pitch and who later on might have reflected wistfully on their head coach Paco Jemez’s pre-match remark that he would be just as happy to lose this fixture 1-0 as 6-0 if his team played well. His goalkeeper Cristian Alvarez, played very well to keep the scoreline in single digits. That it was just a 1-0 lead Barcelona took into half-time reflected well on him.

Lionel Messi had a quiet first 45 minutes, too. Whatever resolutions he made during the interval, they were firm ones. Gerard Pique, capitalising on a loose ball after a corner, had put Barcelona 2-0 up three minutes after the interval. Then the Messi show began: A hat-trick squeezed into 12 minutes.

In that time, naturally, he reached some new landmarks. It was the 35th time in his career Messi has scored at least three goals in a match. The goals were the 40th, 41st and 42nd of his season, across competitions. And now to the more urgently relevant statistics, the ones that measure Messi against the only other footballer at work who can regularly mirror the Argentinian’s monumental standards as a goalscorer? Yes, Messi has now caught up with Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the league’s scorers’ ladder with his three goals against Rayo. They have 30 each.

Indeed, just about the only skill in which Ronaldo can right now claim pre-eminence over his great rival is taking penalties. Messi, who has failed to covert three of his last six, fluffed an effort from the spot against Rayo, a penalty awarded for a foul on Suarez which also cost the losing team a red card, Tito the offender. This time, Messi had the good luck to be invited to retake the shot, Rayo players deemed to have encroached on the penalty area. He scored at the second attempt, the second of his three goals.

What would Ronaldo give for a hat-trick to sooth his current dry run? He is in a troubling slump. Against Athletic, Ronaldo struck no shots on target. He has emerged from four of his last eight games for Madrid with the same empty register. The contrast between his form and Messi’s acts, as ever, as a barometer of how their respective clubs are shaping as the season enters its final third. Messi has scored 15 goals since he collected second prize behind Ronaldo at the 2014 Ballon D’Or gala two months ago; Ronaldo has scored four in the same period.

LA LIGA RESULTS

"We are not effective in attack," said Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid’s head coach, spreading the responsibilities for Madrid’s current problems, the one point they have taken from their last two Liga games. "The fact is we have scored once in the last two matches, and that was from a penalty. There is too much individual play when we need to be faster getting the ball up front."

Madrid conceded the Athletic goal, powered past Iker Casillas by Aritz Aduriz, to a header, an old defensive vulnerability, but Ancelotti is clear his concerns lie elsewhere in the team. "Our problem is not in defence, it’s in attack."

As Madrid’s celebrated trio of strikers — Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale — seem to hibernate, so Barcelona’s flourish. Neymar scored twice in the Copa del Rey win against Villarreal last Wednesday, Messi three times on Sunday, and Suarez twice against Rayo. By converting Barcelona’s sixth goal, Suarez took his personal tally to eight in as many matches. He has overcome the patchy start to his career at Camp Nou.

"Luis Suarez is giving us more and more," said Luis Enrique, the Barcelona coach. "He is developing an understanding with Messi and you can see they have a chemistry between them." And from his perch at the top of La Liga, after 127 days away from that elevated position, Luis Enrique had a message for Ancelotti’s team, should they come to Camp Nou in two weeks still trailing Barcelona, and feeling they must win to remain contenders. "That situation can be a stimulus," he said. "But it can also be a burden."