Lionel Messi bags hat trick, Gerard Pique stars as Barcelona enact revenge on Levante
Lionel Messi scored three and made two as Barcelona crushed Levante 5-0 on Sunday to restore their three-point lead at the top of La Liga.
Barca suffered their only defeat in the league last season at Levante, losing 5-4 in Valencia in May, but never looked like losing here again once Luis Suarez gave them the lead in the first half.
Messi, whose run and cross had set Suarez up, then scored Barca's next three goals before setting up defender Gerard Pique to complete the rout late on after Erick Cabaco was sent off for the home side.
Goals win games, and in Messi and Suarez, Barca have two of the league's top scorers. They now have 25 in the league between them -- more than Real Madrid (24) and Atletico (24) -- and if they keep on scoring like this, it's hard to imagine the title not winding up at Camp Nou again.
Once Barca got their noses in front they motored through the gears, but things might have been different if Levante had struck first. The home side twice went close through Emmanuel Boateng. In fact, seconds before Suarez's opener, he had hit the bar.
There was also a setback before the match, when Nelson Semedo dropped out of the squad with a knee injury. With no cover for Jordi Alba at left-back and Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti also injured, Barca will hope the right-back's not out for long.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- Ernesto Valverde deserves credit for reshuffling his pack after the late loss of Semedo. Playing a back three, at a stadium which holds bad recent memories, was a risk, but it came off.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 7 -- Made one save from Boateng in the second half which you'd expect him to make, but the two he made after the break, from Borja Mayoral and Sanjin Prcic, were brilliant.
DF Gerard Pique, 9 -- Even before scoring the fifth goal late on, he'd produced another colossal display at the back, first as the right centre-back and later in the middle of the back three. One block to deny a certain goal at 3-0 stands out.
DF Clement Lenglet, 7 -- Umtiti's injury has made him a key part of this Barca side. He's grown as the games have passed, and this was another assured performance.
DF Thomas Vermaelen, 6 -- A late inclusion due to the absence of Semedo, lasting just over 50 minutes before being taken off with what looked like a knock.
MF Ousmane Dembele, 7 -- Didn't dazzle in attack, but that was mainly because he was asked to play as a right wing-back. Worked ever so hard. This was a real show of confidence from Valverde to ask him to perform a role with so many defensive responsibilities. A brilliant run drew Cabaco's needless red card.
MF Sergio Busquets, 7 -- A wonderful interception and perfectly weighted pass set up Messi's first goal. After a tough start, found his feet in the game and always looked assured.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 7 -- Won the ball back on the edge of the Levante box in the buildup to the opening goal before finishing the game as an emergency centre-back -- for over half an hour!
MF Arturo Vidal, 7 -- Currently keeping his place in the side despite competition from Arthur and Philippe Coutinho. Unselfishly set up the fourth goal for Messi after good play from Suarez.
MF Jordi Alba, 7 -- Given the left flank to himself and enjoyed the freedom. Assisted Messi's second goal.
FW Lionel Messi, 10 -- Another master class. Scored three, set up two, would have set up four if Luis Suarez and Denis Suarez took their chances. That's 14 goals and 10 assists in La Liga this season.
FW Luis Suarez, 8 -- Opened the scoring with a lovely first-time finish from Messi's cross and was devastating in the buildup to Barca's fourth goal -- nutmeg included. That said, he also wasted two golden chances to add to his tally.
MF Arthur, 6 -- Came on for Vermaelen for the final half-hour, making his first league appearance since November following injury.
MF Philippe Coutinho, N/R -- Unable to get a start in the league at the moment, he had to make do with 15 minutes against Levante.
MF Denis Suarez, N/R -- From one appearance all season to four in a row. Would like more than just 10 minutes here and there, mind.