* Messi treble gives Barca record 16th straight win
* Barca beat mark set by Di Stefano's Real 50 years ago
* Villarreal miss chance to close gap on Real Madrid
(recasts with Barcelona-Atletico result)
By Iain Rogers
MADRID, Feb 5 Lionel Messi's brilliant hat-trick
fired Barcelona to a 3-0 win over Atletico Madrid on Saturday
that set a record for consecutive La Liga victories of 16 and
stretched their lead over Real Madrid at the top to 10 points.
The Argentine World Player of the Year struck twice in 12
first-half minutes and again in the 79th to move two goals clear
of Real forward Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the La Liga
scoring chart with 24 goals.
The victory lifted the champions to 61 points from 22
matches and beat the previous best for straight league wins set
by Alfredo Di Stefano's Real in the 1960-61 season.
Real, who suffered a shock 1-0 defeat at Osasuna last
weekend, can trim the gap back to seven with a win over promoted
Real Sociedad at the Bernabeu on Sunday (1800).
Atletico were looking for a morale-boosting result at the
Nou Camp that would keep their hopes of European qualification
alive but any prospects of derailing the Barca express were
effectively snuffed out by two moments of Messi magic.
His first goal in the 17th minute was a trademark dash in
from the right wing and he left several opponents trailing
before arrowing a low shot past David De Gea.
Spain striker David Villa slipped the ball through for Messi
to score his second in the 29th. Atletico captain Antonio Lopez
got a foot to the ball but Messi dashed clear and clipped a shot
in off the right-hand post from close range.
The 23-year-old had a powerful header acrobatically saved by
De Gea before he beat Diego Godin to the ball to prod it over
the line and complete a memorable treble.
"I am happy with the win against a tough team who are not
going through the best time and that could have made things hard
for us," Messi told Spanish television.
"I am not thinking about being league top scorer at all," he
added. "The important thing is that we continue this winning run
as we have Real Madrid just behind us and we know they will
fight to the end."
Villarreal earlier squandered a chance to trim the gap to
Real to three points and lost their unbeaten home record when
they slumped to a 1-0 defeat against promoted Levante.
The loss, their first in 12 home games this season, leaves
them on 45 points from 22 matches, six behind Real and four
ahead of fourth-placed Valencia, who host promoted Hercules in
Sunday's late kickoff (2000 GMT).
(Editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar; To query or
comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)