Messi works his magic in 5-0 rout of Levante
LIONEL Messi marked his 300th La Liga appearance with a record-equalling hat-trick and an assist for Neymar, as Barcelona stayed hot on the heels of leaders Real Madrid with a 5-0 romp at home against Levante UD on Sunday.
While Messi continued to rewrite the record books with another masterclass, third-placed Atletico Madrid's hopes of a second straight title were dealt a blow when the champions were beaten 2-0 at mid-table Real Club Celta de Vigo.
Atletico were missing creative midfield pair Koke and Arda Turan, and looked a shadow of the side that thrashed Real 4-0 at the Calderon last Saturday.
Their reverse at Celta's Balaidos stadium in Galicia left them six points behind Barca and seven adrift of Real, who won 2-0 at home to promoted Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday.
Messi has been on electric form in recent weeks, and his pinpoint cross set up Neymar to put Barca 1-0 ahead in the 17th minute at the Nou Camp.
The Brazil forward skewed his close-range volley, but the ball looped up over Levante goalkeeper Diego Marino into the net.
Barca doubled their lead seven minutes before half-time, when centre-back Marc Bartra won the ball near the Levante penalty area and threaded a pass through to Messi for the Argentina captain to score with a low shot.
Barca were utterly dominant against their 19th-placed opponents and Messi made it 3-0 in the 59th minute, after neat work from Sergio Busquets and Pedro.
Messi completed his 23rd La Liga hat-trick from the penalty spot in the 65th minute, giving him a share of the record set by Real's Cristiano Ronaldo earlier this season.
Messi has 31 trebles in all competitions for Barca - tying the record for a Spanish club held by former Athletic Bilbao forward Telmo Zarra - while Ronaldo has 27 for Real.
Messi's latest hat-trick took the four-time World Player of the Year's tally in Spain's top flight to a record-extending 269 goals and the 27-year-old's total for the latest La Liga campaign to 26, two fewer than top scorer Ronaldo.
Luis Suarez came off the bench to crown a fine Barca performance with a cracking bicycle kick to make it 5-0 in the 73rd minute.
It was Barca's 11th consecutive victory in all competitions, matching their best run under decorated former coach Pep Guardiola at the end of 2008.