Lionel Messi grabbed his latest trademark hat-trick as Barcelona crushed hapless Rayo Vallecano 6-1 at the Camp Nou to move above Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Messi netted his side's third goal from a retake from the penalty spot on 56 minutes after Tito was sent off for a second booking after a late tackle on Luis Suarez. Messi then added a fourth (63) and fifth (68) to ensure Barca moved a point clear of their fierce rivals.
With Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid slumping 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday evening, Luis Enrique's Barca were not in the mood to squander their chance to move to the summit in what turned out to be a stroll in some early Spring sunshine.
Luis Suarez's fifth goal in four matches had given Barcelona a 1-0 lead on five minutes before Gerard Pique prodded home from close range on 49 minutes to double the Barca advantage.
Suarez added his second in stoppage time despite Barca being down to 10 men after Dani Alves was harshly sent off with 11 minutes remaining for a last-ditch tackle on Alberto Bueno. Bueno slotted the penalty seconds after picking himself up off the ground.
Messi's treble means he has now scored over 40 goals for the Catalan club in the past six seasons and he has now netted a record 24 hat-tricks in Liga - one clear of Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo on 23.
5’ – GOAL FOR BARCA – Xavi rolls back the years with an outrageous pass for Suarez, who stays onside and finishes unerringly.
9’ – CHANCE FOR BARCA – Rayo keeper Cristian Alvarez comes racing out of his goal and Suarez nicks the ball past him. However, instead of shooting he looks to pass to Pedro and Abdoulaye Ba clears.
12’ – BARCA SHOULD HAVE A PENALTY – Suarez rolls Ba brilliantly before driving into the box, and as the defender tries to make up for his mistake tangles with the striker who goes down. The Uruguayan is not rewarded with a spot kick, though.
14’ – CHANCE FOR BARCA – Another brilliant move from the hosts ends with Jordi Alba cutting the ball back from the byline but Pedro diverts it past Xavi and then Dani Alves’ shot is blocked.
21’ – CHANCE FOR BARCA – Xavi exploits Rayo’s high line again but Pedro cannot make the most of it as his weak effort, under pressure from Tito, is smothered by Alvarez.
30’ – CHANCE FOR RAYO – Roberto Trashorras steps up to curl a free kick from 25 yards just wide of the post.
32’ – CHANCE FOR BARCA – Hosts close to an outstanding second as Suarez scoops a pass for Messi who lobs the ball over Alzarez but it drops just wide.
49’ – GOAL FOR BARCA – Pique slots home from close range after a Jeremy Mathieu header comes back off the bar.
56’ – GOAL FOR BARCA – Tito sees red as he hauls down Suarez at a corner. Messi sees his first attempt saved, but is given a reprieve and slams the ball home.
63’ – GOAL FOR BARCA – Messi grabs his second as he taps home after Alvarez parries a Suarez effort into his path.
68’ – GOAL FOR BARCA – Pedro plays in Messi who taps the ball past Alvarez and slides it home to secure a 24th La Liga hat-trick.
81’ – GOAL FOR RAYO – Bueno grabs some consolation from the spot after Alves is harshly sent off.
90+1’ – SUAREZ MAKES IT SIX – The Uruguayan rounds off the scoring after being played in by Messi.
Lionel Messi has now scored at least 40 goals in six successive seasons.
The Argentine's 24 La Liga hat-tricks is a new record, as are his 32 in all competitions.
Barca have both played two games at noon in last four years. Both have ended in 6-1 wins (v Getafe and Rayo).
TALKING POINT Are Barca now favourites to win La Liga? Just a few weeks ago, after their 1-0 home reverse against Malaga, the Catalans' championship hopes were written off. Yet they have stormed back to the top of the table and just two weeks away from El Clasico, look to have the momentum in the title race. A lot can happen in a fortnight of course, but the interplay between Messi and Suarez, not to mention the probing of Xavi from midfield, suggests that Barca are getting back to comewhere near their best. It also sets up the game against Real Madrid perfectly.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Lionel Messi (Barcelona): What can you say about him that hasn't be said before? When he shines, Barca sparkle. Continues to set new records at the club. Messi has also netted 32 hat-tricks which is more than any other player turning out for a Spanish club. He has eclipsed the record of the most hat-tricks ever recorded in Spanish football that he had shared with Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra. It was a minor miracle that he didn't help himself to more goals in a clinical team performance by Luis Enrique's side.
Barcelona: Bravo 6, Alves 6, Pique 7, Mathieu 7, Alba 6, Xavi 8, Mascherano 7, Iniesta 7, Messi 9, Suarez 9, Pedro 7. Subs: Rakitic 7, Rafinha 6, Adriano 6
Rayo Vallecano: Alvarez 7, Tito 3, Ba 4, Amaya 4, Insua 4, Trasahorras 7, Jozabed 5, Lica 4, Bueno 5, Kakuta 5, Baptistao 5. Subs: Quni 5, Aquino 5, Manucho 5