Barcelona pulls ahead of Atletico
BARCELONA, Spain (AP)
Lionel Messi scored two goals and set up another to help Barcelona brush aside Rayo Vallecano 6-0 and keep its share of the Spanish league lead on Saturday, after fellow pacesetter Atletico Madrid rolled over Valladolid 3-0.
Barcelona's big win, which included the scoring return of Neymar after a monthlong injury absence, came three days before it visits Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Barcelona punished a visiting Rayo side intent on trying to deploy a similar precision passing attack and was unfortunate to head into halftime only up 2-0 from Adriano's second-minute opener and Messi's lob in the 36th.
The hosts found their finishing touch in the second half, as Messi struck again along with Alexis Sanchez, Pedro Rodriguez and Neymar.
Messi's double gave him 228 goals in league play at the age of 26, tying him with Raul Gonzalez as the competition's third all-time leading scorer. Telmo Zarra holds the record with 251.
The Argentina forward appears to have regained his full fitness following a two-month injury layoff with four goals in his last two games. And while Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino rested Xavi Hernandez to have him fresh for City, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas picked apart Rayo with their passing.
Atletico likewise dominated its home match after Raul Garcia scored three minutes in and seconds later passed for Diego Costa to double the advantage with his 21st league goal of the season. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and striker David Villa returned from injury absences for Atletico.
Atletico's win ended a run of three straight losses before it visits AC Milan on Wednesday in the Champions League.
Barcelona and Atletico opened up a provisional three-point advantage over Real Madrid before it plays at Getafe on Sunday.
Rayo and Valladolid, meanwhile, remained in the relegation zone along with Real Betis.
Adriano has scored several long-range goals for Barcelona, and the Brazilian defender struck again from outside the box to get Barcelona going just moments after the whistle.
Rayo's insistence to try and work the ball up the pitch with short passes played into Barcelona's pressure and resulted in a slew of chances for the defending champions.
Messi hit the right post after Sergio Busquets recovered the ball in the 14th, and four minutes later Pedro Rodriguez rattled the left upright.
Messi forced goalkeeper Ruben Martinez to make a pair of saves before Fabregas intercepted another errant pass and spotted Messi completely unmarked near Rayo's box. Messi dribbled forward and easily chipped the ball over Martinez to double the lead.
Messi found Alexis all alone to beat Martinez in the 53rd and tally his team-leading 15th league goal of the season, and three minutes later Pedro tapped in a short pass from Fabregas, who was played clear by Iniesta's deft back-heeled flick.
Messi took his second goal in the 68th with a left-footed shot just inside the upright, and Neymar capped the rout in the 89th after he came on as a substitute.
The Brazil striker, who had been out since hurting his right ankle on Jan. 16, dribbled past several defenders before unleashing a long-range strike that sailed in over Martinez.