MADRID (AFP) – Even the Real Betis fans were applauding by the end as Lionel Messi scored another spectacular hat-trick to fire Barcelona to a 4-1 victory on Sunday night and leave them with one hand on the La Liga trophy.
Messi’s treble, his second in a month in Seville, fourth of the season and 51st of his career, moves Barca 10 points clear of Atletico Madrid with 10 games left to play, a gap surely too big to close.
“We had a great opportunity to increase the gap on Atletico,” Messi said. “We had to take it tonight.”
Luis Suarez, whose superb flick set up Messi’s second, scored his own brilliant goal after a scintillating solo run but it was ultimately reduced to a footnote, in what became another night all about his Argentinian partner.
The only blot was the sight of Suarez limping off late on, with what coach Ernesto Valverde suspected was a “bad sprain” to his ankle.
Messi now has 29 league goals this season, 39 in all competitions, and together with Suarez’s 18 their joint-total of 47 is more than all but two of the other teams in the division.
A simple finish from Suarez’s exquisite assist came between a free-kick perfectly planted into the top corner and a bending lob that grazed the crossbar and dropped in.
The Betis fans left at the Benito Villamarin, and most of them were, felt compelled to stand and applaud.
“I don’t remember the opposition cheering me for a goal, I am very grateful,” Messi said.
This was supposed to be one of the more awkward tests in Barcelona’s run-in, which includes Atletico Madrid at home and fifth-placed Alaves away.
All the rest of their opponents currently sit 10th or lower.
But regardless of the fixtures, Barca seem to be saving their best for the home straight, which bodes badly for Manchester United, whom they face in the Champions League quarter-finals next month.
Already in the final of the Copa del Rey, where Barca will return to this stadium to face Valencia in May, a treble is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.