BC-SOC--Spanish Roundup,3rd Ld-Writethru
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — After Lionel Messi scored a wonderful third goal to complete his 51st career hat trick, Real Betis supporters did what only true fans can do when in the presence of genuine soccer genius.
They stood up, applauded Messi and joined with Barcelona fans in chanting out his name.
No, the game wasn’t at Camp Nou. It was the Benito Villamarin Stadium in Seville that resounded with “Messi! Messi! Messi!”
It may end up as simply another superb performance by Messi, among so many in his trophy-laden career. But this game will be remembered by the 54,000 mostly Betis spectators who turned up on Sunday to back their team, only to end up honoring the man who helped deal it a hefty defeat.
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 he play here,” Messi said after his 45th hat trick for Barcelona, and six for Argentina.
“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.”
Barcelona’s victory let it open up a commanding 10-point lead of the Spanish league.
To round off the memorable night, Messi added another milestone to his list by surpassing Xavi Hernandez with a club record 477th win.
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 scored a fine goal of his own midway through the second half.
But Messi saved his best for late after substitute Loren Moron had pulled one back for the hosts. In the 85th, 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. His shot grazed the underside of the bar before going in, triggering the outburst of praise from Betis fans.
Barcelona’s last league loss was 4-3 at home to Betis in November. It is now undefeated in 16 rounds and is on course to successfully defend its 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— a competition it has won four years in a row— and will face Manchester United in the quarterfinals 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 and its eighth in 11 years.
“It depends on us and 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.”
Messi’s first goal was the product of a foul by Andres Guardado on Arthur that gifted the Argentina forward a free kick perfect for his preferred left foot — just slightly outside the semi-circle atop the area.
Messi sent his strike around the wall and into the top corner of the net, leaving Lopez little chance.
Suarez cued Messi’s second when he cleverly drew in defenders before using his heel to flick a no-look pass behind him to meet Messi’s run into the area. Messi did the rest by stabbing a low shot beyond Lopez.
Suarez made up for two earlier misses by scoring from a superb solo effort in the 63rd when the striker dribbled through a trio of backpedaling defenders before a clinical finish for his 18th league goal of the campaign.
Suarez appeared to hurt his lower right leg late in the match.
Valverde said that Suarez had a “sprain” with more tests to determine the extent of the injury, with the striker scheduled to play for Uruguay during the international break.
And just when it looked like he had scored his finest goals of the night, Messi notched his final strike that brought fans in the stadium to their feet.
“Almost every week (Messi) plays at such an amazing level,” said Betis coach Quique Setien. “He is able to singlehandedly decide games.”
Messi, who also hit the post just before the final whistle, leads the Spanish league with 29 goals and has scored 39 goals in 38 appearances in all competitions this season.
Getafe defended well to take a 0-0 draw at Valencia, keeping its hold on fourth place.
Sevilla won 1-0 at Espanyol on the return of Joaquin Caparros, who coached his 500th league match.
Valladolid scored twice in stoppage time to pull off a spectacular 2-1 comeback at Eibar, and Villarreal got two goals from Toko Ekambi to beat Rayo Vallecano 3-1.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports