BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi kept up his scoring streak by netting a hat trick as Barcelona swept aside an outclassed Levante 5-0 in the Spanish league on Sunday.
Messi scored his 12th, 13th and 14th goals in Barcelona’s 11-game winning run after Neymar had put the hosts ahead. Substitute Luis Suarez finished off the rout as Barcelona stayed one point behind leader Real Madrid.
“He’s spectacular,” Neymar said of Messi. “We have our dynamic now, things are coming easily, and we are playing our game. Messi and Suarez and I, we are understanding each other well. It’s an honor to play with them.”
While Barcelona stayed on Madrid’s heels, Atletico Madrid stumbled to a 2-0 defeat at Celta Vigo that left the defending champions seven points adrift.
Messi passed for Neymar to set the hosts on their way in the 17th minute at Camp Nou Stadium. He then struck twice from open play and added a penalty before Suarez used an acrobatic scissor kick to polish off the demolition.
Even by his high standards, Messi is having an outstanding season and getting better as it reaches its critical phase.
Messi’ 31st career treble with Barcelona took his tally in all competitions to 37 goals in 33 games this campaign. His latest multi-goal performance came in his 300th league match and increased his all-time record haul for the competition to 269 goals.
They were also Messi’s 24th, 25th and 26th league goals this season as he closed in on Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo’s tournament-leading tally of 28. Ronaldo had led Messi 28-19. Neymar is third with 17 goals through 23 rounds.
Messi and Neymar have combined for 24 goals during Barcelona’s winning run to quell a club crisis sparked by a loss at Real Sociedad in early January that was followed by the firing of its sports director and the club calling for early presidential elections this summer.
Coach Luis Enrique, however, applauded his team’s attitude.
“My players aren’t euphoric because they know how tough it is to win a title,” said Luis Enrique. “The number of games you win doesn’t matter if they don’t help you win titles.”
Elsewhere on Sunday, Alvaro Negredo earned and converted a 71st-minute penalty to give Valencia a 1-0 win at home over Getafe to reclaim fourth place and the last Champions League spot from Sevilla.
Rayo Vallecano got goals from Alberto Bueno and Gael Kakuta beat sixth-place Villarreal 2-0.
Barcelona completely dominated the relegation-threatened visitors who went no closer than David Barral’s effort that hit Sergio Busquets in the 26th.
Besides Messi’s vision to spot his run, Neymar was helped by a dose of good fortune to score Barcelona’s first goal. Messi cut in from the right flank before meeting Neymar’s run from the left with a lobbed pass that the Brazil striker scuffed, only for the ball to loop over goalkeeper Diego Marino and cross the goalline.
Center back Marc Bartra made a rare start for Barcelona and responded well by charging forward to dispossess Kalu Uche and pass for Messi to drive his first goal under Marino in the 38th.
Barcelona threatened another goal on several occasions before Messi was left unmarked in the 59th to score into an open net after Pedro Rodriguez tapped over Busquets’ lobbed through ball. Six minutes later Messi got his third when he slotted home a spot kick after Neymar was fouled in the box by Ivan Lopez.
Suarez replaced Neymar and scored his most attractive goal to date for his new club when he leaped up into the air to scissor-kick Adriano’s pass into the net in the 73rd.
Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta missed the match due to flulike symptoms.
Celta outplayed Atletico at its Balaidos Stadium, and eventually went in front through Manuel “Nolito” Agudo’s penalty in the 59th. Fabian Orellana secured the three points that pushed his team into ninth place in the 71st.