Barcelona trimmed the gap to leaders Real Madrid to three points when Lionel Messi struck twice in a 4-1 comeback win at relegation-threatened 10-man Real Zaragoza in La Liga on Saturday.
As well as helping the champions put pressure on their archrivals, who they host at Camp Nou later this month, the Argentine became the first player to score 60 goals in a season in European top-flight soccer in almost 40 years.
The last player to reach the milestone was former Bayern Munich striker Gerd Mueller, who netted 67 in the 1972-1973 season.
Real had a chance to restore a six-point advantage if they won their game in hand yesterday, but faced a potentially tricky test at home to third-placed Valencia.
Jose Mourinho’s side, who had a 10-point lead over Barca a few weeks ago before slipping to consecutive draws against Malaga and Villarreal, had 78 points from 30 games, with Barca on 75 from 31 and Valencia trailing on 48.
In an action-packed game at the Romareda, in which Zaragoza had to play the second half with 10 men after the dismissal of fullback Abraham Minero, the hosts squandered one chance to lead when Victor Valdes saved Carlos Aranda’s 24th-minute penalty.
Barca were struggling to break through some dogged defense and Aranda made amends for his weak effort from the spot with a freakish goal on the half hour.
Sent clear on the right, his initial effort was saved by Valdes, but the ball rebounded back on to the burly forward’s bald head, before arrowing past Carles Puyol’s despairing dive into the net.
A howler by Roberto gifted Barca an equalizer in the 36th minute. The Zaragoza goalkeeper came to collect at a corner, but only managed to palm the ball down to Puyol, who volleyed neatly home through a crowd of defenders.
Some tenacious tackling by Alexis Sanchez set up Barca’s second when the Chilean thwarted a Zaragoza attack and raced forward before releasing Messi on the left.
The World Player of the Year beat one defender and lashed the ball high into the net.
It was Barca’s 159th goal of the season in all competitions, beating the club record of 158 set during Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge in 2008-2009.
Zaragoza were reduced to 10 men when Minero was dismissed for a second yellow card moments before halftime and home coach Manolo Jimenez was sent from the bench two minutes after the break for his over-enthusiastic protests.
Jimenez’s tiring troops did well to hang on until five minutes from time when Alexis was upended in the area and Messi drove the spot-kick high past Roberto for his 38th league goal of the campaign, one ahead of Real forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
He then set up Pedro to score Barca’s fourth deep into added time as they romped to a ninth straight league success.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game,” Puyol said in an interview with Spanish television.
“We have a duty to fight in every match and that is what we are doing,” the Barca captain added.
Zaragoza, who had won their last three games to climb off the bottom of the table, stay 18th on 28 points, three ahead of Real Racing Club de Santander and Sporting de Gijon, but four behind Villarreal, who lost 3-1 at Real Betis Balompie in the late kickoff.
CA Osasuna missed a chance to climb above Levante UD into fifth when they were thrashed 6-0 at mid-table Rayo Vallecano de Madrid.