LA LIGA: Messi’s hat-trick keeps Barcelona perfect

AFP, MADRID

Tue, Sep 03, 2013 - Page 18

A first-half hat-trick by Lionel Messi ensured Barcelona maintained their 100 percent start to the season with a thrilling 3-2 win over Valencia as Real Madrid also made it three wins from three games on Sunday.

Messi had looked far from his best in Barca’s Supercopa victory over Atletico Madrid last week, but looked more like his old self as he put Barca 2-0 up inside 39 minutes and was then brilliantly set up by Neymar to complete his hat-trick.

However, Valencia were amazingly back in the game by halftime after Helder Postiga struck twice in first-half stoppage-time.

Barca then passed up a host of chances to put the game to bed in the second half and were nearly punished when Jonas struck the post four minutes from time.

“It is a difficult place to come for the players they have, the atmosphere and the intensity,” Andres Iniesta told Canal Plus. “We practically dominated the first half for 44 minutes, were winning 3-0 and then we let them back into it. It is a question of improving. We are still at the start of the season and it is logical that the team has more to give.”

Neymar had already had a goal ruled out for offside when Cesc Fabregas sprung Valencia’s high line with a fine through-ball on 10 minutes, and Messi evaded challenge from Adil Rami and Diego Alves to bundle home from close range.

Victor Valdes was then forced into a fine save to deny Dorlan Pabon leveling on his debut for Los Che, but just when it appeared Valencia were in control of the game, Barca struck twice in two minutes.

Firstly, Sergio Busquets robbed the ball in midfield to allow Fabregas to set Messi free again to roll into the far corner and then a wonderful piece of individual skill from Neymar teed-up the Argentine to side-foot home his 23rd hat-trick for the Catalans.

Valencia responded wonderfully, though, and they were back in the game before halftime thanks to Postiga’s double.

The Portuguese firstly produced a stunning overhead-kick to turn Joao Pereira’s cross into the top corner and moments later the former Spurs man rose highest to flick home Ever Banega’s corner.

The frantic pace continued after the break as Messi forced Alves into a stunning save from the edge of the area, before Pedro somehow managed to head wide from Iniesta’s cross from point-blank range.

Messi was next to let Valencia off the hook as he unbelievably pulled his shot wide after more great work from Neymar and Jordi Alba down the left, and then he fired straight at Alves when clean through on goal.

The champions were nearly made to pay for their profligacy as Jonas’ curling effort from the edge of the area was brilliantly turned onto the post by Valdes.

Earlier, Real Madrid continued their unblemished start under new manager Carlo Ancelotti with a 3-1 win over Athletic Bilbao at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Isco was the hero for the hosts as he opened the scoring with a neat finish from Karim Benzema’s lofted pass.

Cristiano Ronaldo then headed his first goal of the season from Angel di Maria’s free-kick and Isco’s deflected effort made the game safe for Carlo Ancelotti’s men.

Ibai Gomez pulled a late goal back for Athletic, but it mattered little as Madrid ensured their best start to a league campaign in four years.

Atletico Madrid also maintained their perfect start to the campaign with a 2-1 win away at Real Sociedad.

David Villa and Koke scored either side of halftime to put Diego Simeone’s men in charge.

However, the visitors were thankful to Thibaut Courtois for the three points as the Belgian produced two stunning saves after Xabi Prieto had reduced Sociedad’s arrears 22 minutes from time.

On a night filled with goals, Sevilla and Malaga played out a 2-2 draw in the first Andalusian derby of the season.

Pedro Morales and Roque Santa Cruz twice put Malaga in front, but France international Kevin Gameiro leveled on both occasions with his first goals for Sevilla since joining from Paris Saint-Germain.

Also on Sunday, RCD Espanyol were held goalless at home by Real Betis Balompie.

Additional reporting by staff writer