MADRID: Lionel Messi moved past 300 La Liga goals as Barcelona moved six points clear at the top of the table with a 3-1 win at Sporting Gijon on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila).
The five-time World Player of the Year struck either side of Carlos Castro’s well-worked equalizer in a three-goal burst in five first-half minutes.
Luis Suarez missed a second-half penalty days after famously converting Messi’s pass from a spot-kick against Celta Vigo, but made amends with a brilliant finish for Barca’s third.
Atletico Madrid is Barca’s closest challengers with Real Madrid a further point adrift in third.
“We are where we want to be and depend on ourselves,” said Barca boss Luis Enrique.
“I think we controlled the game and created a lot of clear chances despite the problems that are always caused when a team plays a lot of men behind the ball.”
The match had been postponed due to Barcelona’s commitments in the Club World Cup in December and, with a huge clash against fellow strugglers Real Betis to come on Saturday, Sporting boss and former Barca defender Abelardo Fernandez made nine changes to his side from the team that started Friday’s 2-2 draw with Rayo Vallecano.
However, in a match dominated by the European champions, it was the hosts who had the first clear opening as Alex Menendez shot just wide from Barca loanee Alen Halilovic’s through ball.
Luis Enrique also made five changes, but the star front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar started after their incredible display in the 6-1 thrashing of Celta at the weekend.
Suarez had the first chance to extend his lead as the league’s top scorer from Neymar’s inch-perfect pass, but the Uruguayan fired straight at Ivan Cuellar.
Messi broke the deadlock with a deadly accurate drive into the bottom corner from 25 yards to become the first player ever to bring up a triple century of La Liga goals.
Yet, the lead only lasted two minutes as a brilliant counter-attack saw Pablo Perez pick out Menendez on the left and his low cross was swept home at the back post by Castro.
Barca promptly responded, though, as Suarez showed great strength to hold the ball up and then lay it off for Messi to fire into the roof of the net with the outside of his left foot.
Luis Enrique’s men should have put the game out of sight before half-time as Cuellar flew to his right to prevent Messi from scoring a first-half hat-trick before Neymar curled the rebound against the post.
Barca’s demolition of Celta in the final half an hour on Sunday was lit up by Messi’s decision to pass a penalty into Suarez’s path to complete his hat trick.
And the former Liverpool striker may have regretted not returning the favor as Cuellar dived to his right to save Suarez’s spot-kick after the ‘keeper had brought down Neymar.
Barca have now missed eight of their 16 penalties this season.
However, Suarez made amends with a much harder opportunity 23 minutes from time when his left-footed effort curled in off the far post for his 40th goal of the season.
Arda Turan should have rounded off a 31st consecutive match without defeat for Barca with his first goal for the club, but he tried to square Messi’s brilliant cross to Suarez and the ball flew inches wide.