January 13, 2013
Lionel Messi scored one goal and set up two more to spark the Spanish leaders.
David Ramos/Getty Images

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- In his first game since winning an unprecedented fourth Ballon d'Or, Lionel Messi scored one goal and set up two more to steer Barcelona to a 3-1 win at Malaga on Sunday as the Spanish leaders reached the season's midway point with an almost immaculate record.

Messi pounced on an ill-advised back pass by Malaga's Ignacio Camacho in the 27th minute to score for the ninth league game in a row. He then set up Cesc Fabregas to score in the 50th and substitute Thiago Alcantara to add another eight minutes from time.

Barcelona has won all 10 away games this season and is unbeaten in the competition after a league-record start of 18 wins to go with one single draw.

While the season is still far from over, Barcelona looks set to recover its domestic crown. The Catalan club maintained its commanding 11-point lead over Atletico Madrid after its nearest chaser beat Real Zaragoza 2-0.

"The first half of the season has been amazing. It will be difficult to repeat,'' said Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova. "But I am not very good at math. The league is not finished and we are not invincible. The key is the ambition of my players. They are very good and work to win.''

While Atletico is theoretically still in the hunt, Barcelona's victory left defending champion Real Madrid in a distant third place 18 points adrift. That is the largest deficit Madrid has faced since it was 20 points behind league-leading Atletico in May 1996.

The game was billed as one of the toughest outings Barcelona could face, and Malaga tried to press the visitors at the start.

But Malaga's challenge didn't last long. Barcelona's midfield trio of Andres Iniesta, Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez soon took control of the ball, while holding midfielder Sergio Busquets swept up everything in his path.

Messi did the rest.

The Argentine's opener was a mixture of speed and stealth, as Camacho never saw Messi lurking when he sent the ball back toward his area. Messi raced in to scoop it up, cut back to bring goalkeeper Willy Caballero to the turf, and rolled the ball into the empty net.

"We made a stupid mistake that let Barcelona take the lead in a contest that was evenly matched,'' said Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini. "I think we could have done more if it hadn't been for that.''

Having scored a record 50 league goals last season, Messi is on pace to surpass his own milestone. He already has a league-leading 28 goals so far this campaign.

Barcelona as a team is also on course to break Madrid's record point haul from last season when it finished with 100. Barcelona has 55 points at the season's halfway mark.

Messi created Barcelona's second goal just after halftime when he lobbed a perfect pass over defender Martin Demichelis for the streaking Fabregas to shoot off the far post and into the net with vicious right-footed stab.

Thiago capped the win late by dribbling past two defenders and linking up with Messi with a clever one-two passing combination before firing under Caballero.

"We played a complete game, attacking and defending well,'' said Fabregas. "Each of us has his own qualities and I think we complement one other very well.''

Diego Buonanotte went off the bench to score from a free kick and give Malaga a consolation goal with two minutes to play.

Vilanova was on the touchline for Barcelona's latest dazzling performance after returning from a trip to New York, reportedly to seek further treatment after he recently had a tumor removed from his a saliva gland for the second time in two years.

Vilanova said he felt fine.

"For me football isn't a job, it's a pleasure,'' he said. "It's the best therapy there is for me.''

Malaga's loss meant it slid into fifth place, relinquishing Spain's last Champions League spot to Real Betis after it beat visiting Levante 2-0 earlier.

Malaga will have a chance at revenge when it visits Camp Nou on Wednesday in the first leg of its Copa del Rey quarterfinal series against Barcelona.

Radamel Falcao scored his 18th league goal of the season to help Atletico brush off Zaragoza, as Diego Simeone's team kept its perfect home record through 10 league games this season.

Also, 10-man Deportivo La Coruna earned a 1-1 draw at Real Sociedad that allowed it to crawl out of the cellar and push Osasuna to the bottom of the standings.

Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2013/soccer/wires/01/13/2080.ap.soc.spanish.roundup.6th.ld.writethru.747/index.html#ixzz2Hu1pkVre

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