Lionel Messi hat-trick restores Barcelona’s La Liga lead

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Barcelona’s Lionel Messi in action with Levante’s Sergio Postigo

Madrid, December 17: Lionel Messi continued his sublime form by netting his 31st La Liga hat-trick as Barcelona thrashed Levante 5-0 on Sunday to regain their three-point lead at the top of the table.
The 31-year-old Argentinian arrived in Valencia having scored two free-kicks in last weekend’s derby thumping of Espanyol. He took his goals tally for the season to 20 after a virtuoso display, while also teeing up Luis Suarez’s 35th-minute opener and Gerard Pique’s late fifth.
Barca were under pressure after Atletico Madrid and second-placed Sevilla had both moved level on points with the Catalan giants.
But after resting his key stars for their final Champions League group-stage match against Tottenham in midweek, coach Ernesto Valverde saw his refreshed side cruise to a third straight league win without conceding a goal.
“At the beginning it was difficult, they squeezed us and had a chance that hit the woodwork,” said Valverde.
Levante started the game brightly and visiting goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was forced into an early save by Ghanaian Emmanuel Boateng.
But Barca did not take long to start moving through the gears, with Messi curling wide from long range before testing Oier Olazabal in the Levante goal with a free-kick.
Just seconds after Boateng hammered a left-footed strike against the crossbar, the reigning Spanish champions broke the deadlock as Messi jinked through a mesmerised home defence and picked out Suarez who volleyed home.
But Levante, who had ended Barcelona’s dreams of going through last season’s La Liga campaign unbeaten with a remarkable 5-4 victory in the penultimate game, came close to a quick response as Jose Luis Morales fired over. (AFP)