Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick with his brilliant third goal applauded by opposition fans as Barcelona beat Real Betis Balompie 4-1 to open up a commanding 10-point Serie A lead on Sunday.
Messi struck with a powerful free kick in the 17th minute. He added a second goal just before halftime from a pass by Luis Suarez, who added a third goal at the Benito Villamarin Stadium.
However, Messi saved his best for late after Betis substitute Loren Moron had pulled one back for the hosts. Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer used one touch of his left boot to float the ball from the left side of the box over goalkeeper Pau Lopez, with his shot grazing the underside of the bar before going in, triggering applause from fans of both teams.
Messi said he had never received such a tribute from opposing fans.
“No, I can’t remember that happening before. I am grateful. We are always treated well when we play here,” Messi said after his 45th hat-trick for Barcelona.
“I was fortunate enough to get the goals and we took the three points, because we had a great chance to increase the distance with Atletico that we couldn’t let get away,” he added.
Messi, who also hit the post just before the final whistle, leads the league with 29 goals and has scored 39 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions this season.
Barcelona’s last league loss was 4-3 at home to Betis in November last year. They are undefeated in 16 rounds and are on course to successfully defend their league title after taking full advantage of second-placed Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
Ernesto Valverde’s team has also reached the final of the Copa del Rey and is to face Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the Champions League next month.
There are 10 rounds remaining, but with Messi and his teammates playing at this level and with such a large cushion of points, only a complete collapse could deny Barcelona a 26th league title.
“It depends on us staying aware that nothing is decided yet,” Messi said. “Worse things have happened. There are still lots of points in play and we have to keep playing like this.”
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