Barcelona crushes big-spending Malaga
Lionel Messi scored a rare header in his hat trick on Sunday to lead Barcelona to a 4-1 win at Malaga, keeping the pressure on Spanish leader Real Madrid ahead of its game against in-form Athletic Bilbao.
Messi started the rout in the 33rd minute and then added two more after Alexis Sanchez had doubled the lead at the start of the second half. The Argentina forward now has a league-high 22 goals this season, one more than Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
Madrid will be trying to shake off its midweek loss to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals, with its fierce rivals trailing by two points in the standings at the season's midway point.
''There is a long way to go, all the second half of the season, and we will keep pushing all the way,'' Messi said.
Barcelona will look to protect its 2-1 advantage over Madrid at Camp Nou on Wednesday, and coach Pep Guardiola looked to have the second leg in mind. Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Carles Puyol were left on the bench, with Thiago Alcantara, Adriano and Javier Mascherano taking their place.
Like Espanyol and Real Betis the past two weeks, Malaga came out with the plan to show attacking intent.
After Alexis and Messi had probed the home team's defense, Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes had to make three saves in a row from Francisco ''Isco'' Alarcon. The 19-year-old forward first forced Valdes to parry his long-range strike and then saw the Spain international make reflex saves to stop a header and a shot after a rebound from the resulting corner.
Barcelona has struggled away this season, with just one win in its previous four outings. But once Messi found the net for just the second time away from home this season, the hosts had little trouble making Malaga look like the team it was before a ?60 million ($77.5 million) overhaul in the offseason.
Andres Iniesta passed to Adriano out wide and he squared for Messi to guide a graceful header past diving goalkeeper Willy Caballero. It was Messi's first headed goal in the league this season and just his 10th ever for Barcelona out of 216 goals.
''(Messi's) greatest virtue is his consistency,'' Guardiola said. ''He has been playing at such a high level for a long time. These goals will help him in the games to come.''
Barcelona made short work of Malaga after halftime, with Alexis pouncing on the rebound following a shot by Thiago and firing inside the top of the goal in the 48th.
As special as his first goal was, the second was pure Messi. The three-time Ballon D'Or winner put the result beyond doubt three minutes later when he recovered the ball in Malaga territory, skirted through a swarm of reeling defenders and slotted a left-footed strike into the left corner.
He then hit the crossbar from a free kick in the 75th but was not to be denied seven minutes later when he charged down the left flank, rode a defender's tackle and beat Caballero with a light touch of his left foot to send the ball bouncing into the far side of the net.
Malaga substitute striker Jose Rondon scored the hosts' late consolation goal.