The unstoppable Lionel Messi set a record for goals scored in a calendar year and kept unbeaten La Liga leaders Barcelona six points clear of Atletico Madrid in a nervy 2-1 win at Real Betis Balompie on Sunday.
The Argentine World Player of the Year netted his 85th and 86th goals of the year at the Estadio Benito Villamarin in Seville to smash the previous best of 85 set by German Gerd Mueller in 1972.
Messi’s exploits overshadowed those of Atletico striker Radamel Falcao, who earlier put bottom side RC Deportivo de la Coruna to the sword with a five-goal haul in a crushing 6-0 home success.
The prolific Colombian, known as “the tiger” and coveted by many of Europe’s richest clubs, took his tally for the season to 16 in 15 matches as Atletico restored a five-point lead over city rivals Real Madrid.
Jose Mourinho’s Real side had to come from behind twice to scrape a 3-2 win at Real Valladolid on Saturday, which closed the gap to Atletico to two points overnight.
However, Atletico responded with a 12th win in 15 outings this term against a promoted Depor side in danger of relegation.
Barca have won all their games this season apart from a 2-2 draw at home to Real in October and Messi’s double put them on 43 points, with Atletico on 37 and Real on 32. Betis are fifth on 25 points, level with fourth-placed Malaga, who thumped Granada 4-0 on Saturday.
Barca manager Tito Vilanova’s side predictably dominated Betis for most of the first half, but lost control after the break and the unfortunate Andalusians were three times denied by the post.
Messi equaled Mueller’s record when he picked up the ball in a central position in the 16th minute and left the Betis defense standing before sending an angled shot across goal into the bottom right corner.
Andres Iniesta’s clever back-heel set Messi up to score again nine minutes later with a strike from a similar position just inside the penalty area that flew into the same corner of the goal.
Ruben Castro pulled a goal back for the home side in the 39th minute to set the stage for a difficult second half for the visitors.
Meanwhile, Atletico’s Diego Costa made amends for Thursday’s Europa League red card when he opened the scoring at the Estadio Vicente Calderon with a header from Koke’s corner in the 23rd minute.
Depor midfielder Juan Valeron headed against a post four minutes later, but Atletico doubled their lead on their next foray forward when Falcao sped on to Koke’s pass and fired a low drive into the net.
A quick throw three minutes before the break set up the 26-year-old for his second and he crashed a shot past Daniel Aranzubia.
Falcao then won and converted a penalty in the 64th minute to complete his hat-trick, flung himself to head Arda Turan’s deflected shot over the line and netted a clinical fifth in the 71st minute.
He is the first player to score five goals in a La Liga match since Fernando Morientes for Real Madrid against Las Palmas in 2002.
RCD Mallorca continued their plunge toward relegation when they crashed to a 4-0 reverse at Levante UD, while struggling Athletic Bilbao claimed only a fifth victory of the season with a 1-0 win at home to RC Celta de Vigo.