MADRID, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Champions Barcelona moved three points clear at the top of La Liga from Sevilla and Atletico Madrid after thrashing Levante 5-0 on Sunday, while Real Madrid scraped to a 1-0 win over Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.
Here are five talking points from the weekend’s action.
Barcelona suffered their only league defeat of last season at Levante in their penultimate game, spoiling their bid to go unbeaten. This time, it was a wholly different story. Why? Lionel Messi wasn’t rested.
La Liga’s top scorer hit a hat-trick and set up the other two in Barcelona’s thumping victory, becoming the only player in the top five European leagues this season to reach double figures for both goals (14) and assists (10).
Helping Barca go three points clear at the top, Messi and Luis Suarez have 25 league goals this season between them, one more than Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have managed in total. In fact, only Sevilla (29) and Celta Vigo (28) have outscored them in La Liga.
After Barcelona swept to a 4-2 victory over Sevilla in October, many wondered if the Andalusians’ title charge was over before it had begun.
However, Pablo Machin’s side have bounced back to go seven league games unbeaten since then, with the latest an impressive 2-0 victory over Girona on Sunday which sees them sit second.
Pablo Sarabia was on target again and his superb form is one of the reasons Sevilla have been so dangerous this season.
The midfielder has six goals and six assists in La Liga and, given that Spain coach Luis Enrique has shown he is willing to hand out chances to those who deserve it, the smart money is on Sarabia earning his first international call-up in 2019.
Just five points behind leaders Barcelona, Real Madrid are still in the title race but despite an excellent record of five wins from six games under Santiago Solari, their performances still leave much to be desired.
Thibaut Courtois made an outstanding double save in stoppage time to ensure they edged past Vallecano as he kept a sixth clean sheet in nine games under Solari in all competitions.
Spanish newspaper AS published an article listing the Belgian’s heroics against Huesca, Celta Vigo and Valladolid that also saved the team points.
Unlike Sevilla, Espanyol started the season well but have fallen dramatically off the pace and dropped from second in October down to 11th.
Rubi’s side have played some sparkling football and been far more entertaining than under Quique Sanchez Flores, who was sacked in April after going five games without a goal.
Yet Sunday’s 3-1 home defeat by Real Betis was their fifth straight league loss. After winning their first five league games at home and turning their Cornella stadium into a fortress, they now seem vulnerable there, conceding 10 in their last three games.
However Rubi insists: “I’m convinced that we will come out of this, we have played well and we will play well again.”
Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann’s double helped his side to a 3-2 win at Real Valladolid on his 300th La Liga appearance, keeping Atletico third and in the title race.
However, despite 10 goals in 23 games across all competitions, Griezmann said that he was still feeling the weight of an intense year which saw him win the Europa League with Atletico and the World Cup with France.
“I can still improve, I am not at my best level, it has been a long year and sometimes I lack speed,” said Griezmann.
“I’m very happy to be able to help the team. It’s a very long year, we have a game and then a little rest.”
With the winter break arriving after next weekend’s clash with Espanyol, Griezmann may finally be able to recharge his batteries. (Reporting by Rik Sharma Editing by Ian Chadband)