- Associated Press - Sunday, December 16, 2018

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - With a hat trick and two assists, Lionel Messi showed again this weekend why Barcelona is favored by many to successfully defend its Spanish league title.

Sevilla and Atletico Madrid may be only three points behind as the season approaches the midway mark, but neither challenger can count on the unrivaled talent of Messi to single-handedly turn competitive matches into blowouts.

Messi reached the 50-goal mark for club and country in 2018 by scoring a hat trick to fuel Barcelona’s 5-0 route at Levante on Sunday.

Before netting his 43rd career hat trick for Barcelona, Messi set up Luis Suarez to score just after Levante had struck the woodwork and appeared to be in charge. He then went on to net his 18th, 19th and 20th goals of the season before helping Gerard Pique polish off the big win.

“I don’t know how to evaluate Messi, and that is the most common question I am asked,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “He is the player that makes us play the way we do . and scores incredible goals.”

While its challengers are still within striking distance, Barcelona seems to have found its championship stride as the season approaches the winter break coming after the next round.

Valverde’s side has scored 46 times through 16 rounds, far more than Sevilla, which has the second-best attack with 29 goals scored.

Messi and Suarez have combined to score 25 of those goals, giving the South American stars one more goal than the entire teams of Atletico or fourth-placed Real Madrid.

“Luis and Leo have proven to be the best attacking pair (in football) in recent years,” Pique said. “Luis has goals in his blood and Leo, what more can I say? We have firepower up front and just needed to improve at the back, and that is what we are doing.”

Pique anchors a defensive line that had struggled through stretches this campaign, but has now kept three consecutive clean sheets in the league.

NOT PRETTY

Madrid is still in the title hunt, but the gap that has opened between the club and Barcelona following Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit during the summer is undeniable.

The biggest applause at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Saturday came when Luka Modric showed fans his Ballon d’Or award for leading Croatia to the World Cup final and helping Madrid to last season’s Champions League title.

Otherwise, it was a dull 1-0 win over relegation-threatened Rayo Vallecano that spurred the frustrated home fans into jeering the hosts when they almost squandered the win in injury time.

Madrid coach Santiago Solari said that “after the last scoring chance (by Rayo) it’s normal” for the fans to get angry.

SUB FOR COSTA

Atletico hopes it has found a replacement for injured striker Diego Costa.

Nikola Kalinic scored opening goals in Atletico’s last two league matches - a 3-2 victory at Valladolid on Saturday and its 3-0 win over Alaves in the previous round. He also scored in a recent 4-0 win against lower-division Sant Andreu in the Copa del Rey.

The 30-year-old Kalinic had been having trouble finding playing time as a backup since joining Atletico from AC Milan during the summer.

Costa is out while recovering from surgery to his left foot earlier this month. Coach Diego Simeone said he expects Costa to return in February.

In the meantime, Kalinic will be Atletico’s sole striker during January, which is set to be packed with Copa del Rey matches midweek and league games at the weekend.

And with Costa having scored only once in the league this season, Kalinic might just have the chance to earn a permanent spot in the starting 11.

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports


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