Liga - Messi hat-trick conquers Malaga

Sun, 22 Jan 21:59:00 2012

Lionel Messi scored his fifth hat-trick of the season as Barcelona cruised past Malaga with a 4-1 victory at La Rosaleda.

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The Argentine forward opened the scoring shortly after the half-hour mark in a pedestrian first half before Alexis Sanchez's goal three minutes after the interval sparked the match into life.

Goals two and three for Messi on 51 and 81 minutes respectively gave the reigning Liga champions a four goal advantage, before Rondon pounced to give the flustered home side a consolation five minutes from time.

Malaga almost restored a little pride with a late surge during which Rondon and fellow substitute Seba Fernandez came close to further reducing the defecit, but Messi too was twice denied at the death by Wilfredo Caballero in goal.

The win pulled Barca closer to leaders Real Madrid, but Los Merengues later beat Athletic Bilbao 4-1 at the Bernabeu to move back five points clear at the summit.

Employing their traditional belief that patience is a virtue, the visitors were in no panic in their hunt for the lead against a Malaga side strong at the back but lacking the ideas to cause Barcelona's makeshift back four many problems.

The hosts' chief source of a potential opener was Isco, and on the quarter hour mark the teenage midfielder tested Victor Valdes on two occasions in quick succession.

First, his speculative drive from outside the penalty area had to be tipped over the bar by the stalwart goalkeeper, before the resulting corner was kept out by Valdes' impressive double save from Isco and then Martin Demichelis.

Eric Abidal - who scored the winning goal in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final at Real Madrid - almost surged through in the box with half an hour played, but when Caballero made himself big and forced the left-back into a unfeasible shooting position, his cut-back to Messi led to a cross-cum-shot from the Ballon d'Or winner which was blocked yards from the goal line.

Messi would finally find the back of the net three minutes later, but not before Ruud van Nistelrooy scuppered a golden opportunity for a close range volley when he mis-hit Eliseu's cross to the far post.

It was a miss Malaga would rue within moments when Adriano's cross from the left at the other end was met by the head of the Argentine maestro for the game's first goal.

Though they spent most of the time chasing shadows or digging deep inside their own penalty area, the home side almost created another big chance on the stroke of half-time when a raking ball upfield was one decent first touch away from leaving van Nistelrooy one-on-one with Valdes.

However, when the Dutchman's header down took him away from goal slightly, it was enough of an invitation for Javier Mascherano to nip in and outmuscle his larger adversary to end the half with the clean sheet intact.

It appeared that Pep Guardiola was not best pleased with his team sitting on the one goal advantage, as they came out for the second half ready altogether more purposefully.

With 48 minutes on the clock Thiago lit the touch paper by forcing Caballero into a decent double save before the goalkeeper was finally beaten on the second rebound by Sanchez.

And only a further three minutes were required for two to become three as the visitors capitalised on complacency on the ball from the Malaga midfield and Messi strode forward on the ball before slotting his second into the bottom corner.

The World Player of the Year was only denied a faster treble by the woodwork 16 minutes from time when his free-kick from inside the 'D' came back off the underside of the crossbar.

But the goal frame would only deny him for a further seven minutes, when a lightning counter led to the best of the bunch: a confident 30 yard run forward beyond two defenders capped by an exquisite finish across Caballero with pinpoint timing and placement.

The fourth goal conceded appeared to be the final straw for a poor Boquerones team, who sparked by their substitutes during the second half began to finally test the Barca back line and even pulled a goal back.

Recio's 20-yard drive was a cracking one, but Valdes' spill of the shot allowed fellow replacement Rondon to pounce and put away a consolation off the far post.

He was inches from a second two minutes later only for his header from the cross of third substitute Fernandez to go inches wide, as did the winger when the two switched roles in stoppage time.

But Manuel Pellegrini's defeated men had their goalkeeper to thank late on when Messi was denied goals four and five - and a possible 6-1 scoreline - by Caballero's point-blank reactions.

Liam Happe - on Twitter @liamhappe / Eurosport

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