Lionel Messi was lauded by opposition supporters on Sunday after he scored an outstanding hat-trick in Barcelona’s 4-1 win at Real Betis.
The win put the Catalans 10 points clear at the top of La Liga with 10 games remaining.
With Barca’s nearest challengers Atletico Madrid falling to a 2-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao the previous day, Messi got Barca off to an ideal start by drilling a free kick into the top corner of the net in the 18th minute.
The Argentine put Barca further at ease with another strike at the end of the first half, finishing off a backheeled pass from Luis Suarez as the two South American forwards carved their way through Betis’s defence.
Uruguay forward Suarez had missed several clear chances to score but he finally got his reward for a lively performance with a goal in the 63rd minute, dancing past four Betis players on a dazzling run, which began in his own half.
Loren Moron pulled one back for Betis in the 82nd minute but Messi replied with a sumptuous first-time lob in off the crossbar to complete his treble and the Betis supporters responded by chanting the Argentine’s name and bowing down to him.
It was an utterly dominant performance from the La Liga leaders, which avenged their 4-3 loss at home to Betis in November and took them on to 66 points after 28 games while Atletico has 56 and third-placed Real Madrid has 54.
There were worries for Barca at the end of the game, however.
Suarez, clearly in pain, had to receive treatment on the sidelines and Barca later confirmed he had sprained his ankle and would undergo tests on Monday to determine how long he would be out.
Messi, who scored twice in Barca’s 5-1 win over Olympique Lyonnais in the Champions League on Wednesday, now has 29 goals in 26 La Liga appearances and 39 strikes in all competitions.
Still, he was taken aback by the applause he received from the Betis fans.
“I cannot remember anything like this before and I’m very grateful for the fans’ reaction.
“I’m very grateful to them and happy for the victory, which was very important,’’ Messi told reporters.
“We were playing against a team that treats the ball very well but the coach read the game perfectly from a tactical point of view.’’
Messi said his team were extra eager to beat Betis after Atletico’s defeat in Bilbao, adding that the title race was not yet over.
“It was a very good chance to increase our distance at the top, we knew about Atletico’s result and we couldn’t afford to not take it,’’ he said.
“The title is in our own hands but nothing has been decided yet.
“Worse things have happened before.
“We have a great advantage but there are many points still to play for.
“We have to keep playing as we have been without giving anything away.”