Messi strikes for fiery Barcelona

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IOL pic jan14 soccer barcelona messi Reuters Barcelona's Lionel Messi (foreground) celebrates after scoring against Malaga during their Spanish First Division soccer match at La Rosaleda stadium in Malaga on Sunday.

Madrid - Rampant unbeaten leaders Barcelona ended the first half of the La Liga season with a record 55 of a possible 57 points when Lionel Messi scored one goal and had a hand in two more in a 3-1 win at Malaga on Sunday.

An 18th victory in 19 games for Tito Vilanova's side in an entertaining match at the Rosaleda restored their 11-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, who earlier secured a 10th win in 10 home matches this term with a 2-0 success against Real Zaragoza.

Barca's win also extended their lead over arch rivals Real Madrid to 18 points after the champions, mired in third, were held to a 0-0 draw at bottom side Osasuna on Saturday.

Malaga have the meanest defence in the league, but a howler by Ignacio Camacho gifted Barca their opener in the 27th minute.

Messi intercepted the midfielder's wayward back pass and after leaving Malaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero sprawling on the floor stroked the ball into an empty net.

It was the World Player of the Year's 28th league goal of the campaign and the ninth straight game he has scored, a personal record and one short of the La Liga mark last achieved in the 1996-97 season by former Barca striker Ronaldo.

Messi sent Fabregas clear to double the visitors' lead five minutes after the break and then laid the ball into space for substitute Thiago Alcantara to add an 82nd-minute third.

Diego Buonanotte, another substitute, curled in a free kick for Malaga a minute from time but it was far too late for the Andalusians, who slip to fifth behind Real Betis.

Barca's points haul for the first half of the season is a record for Spain's top flight and they set another La Liga best by scoring for the 37th match in a row.

Resurgent Atletico go into the second half of the season with a perfect home record after Tiago and Radamel Falcao scored to help see off Zaragoza.

The comfortable victory at the Calderon means Atletico have won 10 La Liga home games on the trot for the first time in almost 40 years.

They stretched their advantage over third-placed city rivals Real Madrid to seven points and their improvement under Argentine coach Diego Simeone can be gauged by the fact that they were 23 points behind Real at the same stage last term.

Tiago nodded Atletico ahead in the 31st minute and Falcao doubled their lead from the penalty spot seven minutes later after Arda Turan was felled by Cristian Sapunaru.

It was the seventh successful penalty conversion this season by the Colombia striker, who is coveted by several of Europe's wealthiest clubs, and took his league tally for the campaign to 18, 10 behind Messi and two ahead of Real's Cristiano Ronaldo.

Betis continued their impressive push for a European qualification place when in-form forward Ruben Castro created one goal and scored another in a 2-0 win at home to Levante in the early kickoff.

The victory at a festive Estadio Benito Villamarin in sunny Seville lifted Betis to fourth on 34 points with half the season played, three ahead of Andalusian rivals Malaga.

Castro set up Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell, on loan from English Premier League club Arsenal, to put Betis ahead in the seventh minute.

The 31-year-old Canary Islander then netted his 11th league goal of the campaign just after the hour following a superb piece of close control on the edge of the area.

Coached by the charismatic Pepe Mel, Betis last took part in European competition in 2005-06 when they finished third in their Champions League group behind Liverpool and Chelsea.

They were relegated in 2008-09 before winning promotion back to Spain's top flight two years later.

Valencia-based Levante, who have been drawn to play Greek side Olympiakos Piraeus in the Europa League last 32 when the competition resumes next month, are eighth on 30 points.

Deportivo La Coruna survived the 64th-minute dismissal of defender Evaldo and held on to earn a 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad that put them back above Osasuna. - Reuters


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