Madrid: A sparkling Andres Iniesta twice set up Lionel Messi, created a goal for Cesc Fabregas and netted a brilliant effort of his own as La Liga leaders Barcelona extended their near-perfect start with a thumping 4-0 win at Levante on Sunday.
The Spain playmaker’s masterly performance at Levante’s Ciutat de Valencia stadium helped maintain unbeaten Barca’s three-point lead over Atletico Madrid, who earlier crushed nine-man Sevilla by the same scoreline.
The latest victory for Barca, their 12th in 13 matches, also put them 11 points clear of champions and arch-rivals Real Madrid, who slipped further back in third after they were upset 1-0 at Real Betis on Saturday.
An almost impeccable performance from Tito Vilanova’s side, one of their best of the season, was crowned when Victor Valdes saved Jose Javier Barkero’s late penalty and Barca have 37 points with Atletico on 34 and Real on 26.
“We just need to keep doing what we have been doing, this is the right path,” Iniesta said in an interview with Spanish broadcaster Canal Plus.
“Atletico are our closest rivals right now and playing very well and they are candidates for the title,” he added.
Malaga are fourth on 22 points after they thrashed Valencia 4-0 on Saturday, level with fifth-placed Betis and two ahead of Levante in sixth.
After Levante kept a dominant Barca at bay until halftime and created a couple of decent chances of their own, Iniesta sent Messi clear to open the scoring with a dink over Levante goalkeeper Gustavo Munua in the 47th minute.
Iniesta danced to the byline and pulled the ball back for Messi to net his and Barca’s second five minutes later before he picked up Pedro’s pass and crashed a shot into the goal off the underside of the crossbar in the 57th minute.
Fabregas’s goal came six minutes later when Iniesta played him through into the area and he rounded Munua and finished from a tight angle, prompting chants of “champions, champions” from some of the Barca fans in the stands.
“We are only in November and the season goes through until May but we are very happy with the way things went today,” sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta told Canal Plus.
“Iniesta did a lot of great things but I would say the team as a whole played extremely well,” added the former Barca and Spain goalkeeper.
Messi’s 18th and 19th La Liga goals of the campaign put the Argentine World Player of the Year within three of the record for the most goals in a calendar year of 85 set by Germany and Bayern Munich striker Gerd Mueller 40 years ago.
The prolific 25-year-old has scored 70 for his club and 12 for Argentina and is hot favourite to secure a fourth straight World Player award when the winner is announced in January.
The only negative for Barca was an injury to fullback Daniel Alves, who was forced off with what Zubizarreta said was a leg muscle strain in the 14th minute.
The Brazilian was replaced by Martin Montoya, meaning all 11 Barca players on the pitch at that point were products of the club’s youth academy.
Atletico, who visit city rivals Real next weekend and Barca two weeks later, strolled to victory at the Calderon after Sevilla’s Argentine centre back Federico Fazio was dismissed for tripping Koke in the penalty area in the 20th minute.
Colombia striker Radamel Falcao smashed his spot-kick into the roof of the net before Arda Turan’s cross was turned into his own goal by Emir Spahic in the 40th minute and Koke clipped Diego Costa’s volleyed centre into the net four minutes later.
Sevilla’s Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic was shown a second yellow card and sent off seven minutes from time and Brazilian defender Miranda netted Atletico’s fourth from Turkey playmaker Turan’s clever set-up in the second minute of added time.
“I am very pleased with what the players are doing,” coach Diego Simeone, who has revitalised the club he helped win the league and King’s Cup double as a player in 1996, told a news conference.
“It’s huge,” added the Argentine, who led the club to victory in the Europa League last season. “Hopefully, they have the strength to keep competing.”
Athletic Bilbao squandered a chance to get their erratic season back on track when they surrendered the lead and were held to a 1-1 draw at home to Deportivo La Coruna.
Oscar de Marcos fired the Basques ahead in the 24th minute and Abel Aguilar headed an equaliser for Depor seven minutes after the break.
Bilbao are 14th on 15 points and Depor climbed out of the relegation places into 17th on 11.
Espanyol stayed firmly rooted to the bottom after they crashed to a 2-0 defeat at home to Getafe, Pedro Leon and Mane scoring for the Madrid-based side in Barcelona.