Madrid: Lionel Messi smashed through the 300-goal mark with a brace as Barcelona crushed Rayo Vallecano 5-0 in Madrid on Saturday to go three points clear at the top of La Liga.
David Villa, Xavi Hernandez and Cesc Fabregas got the other goals to put the pressure back onto second-placed Atletico Madrid who entertain Osasuna on Sunday.
Messi’s goals were the 300th and 301st of his career, a total made up of 270 for Barca and 31 for Argentina in only 419 matches.
They also took him to 13 in the league this season and 73 in all competitions in 2012.
That’s just two behind Pele’s 75 goals for Santos and Brazil in 1959, and only 12 shy of Gerd Mueller’s all-time best calendar year record of 85 for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972.
Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova was delighted with his team who have now equalled the club’s best ever start to a La Liga season, taking 25 points from a possible 27.
“Being able to win 25 out of 27 points is not an easy feat. We could have drawn a couple of our matches, but we fought until the end and we deserve the points we’ve won,” he said.
Vilanova also praised Messi for his team spirit as much as his goals.
“We’re very pleased with Leo, but I’m sticking with what he did in the 89th minute, when we were up 5-0 he ran back 30 metres to defend a corner kick.”
Rayo started brightly and had claims for a penalty turned down on eight minutes when Fabregas appeared to hold back Leo Baptistao.
Rayo were pressuring the Catalans and it took until the 19th minute for Barca to have their first shot when Messi drove wide.
However, a minute later, Barcelona were ahead.
The chance came from nothing when Fabregas picked up a loose ball and played in Villa with a probing pass that the Spanish national team’s all-time top scorer finished first time with his right foot.
Fabregas was the supplier again for Villa seven minutes later, but this time his shot was saved by Ruben Martinez in the Rayo goal.
Two minutes later, Ruben advanced quickly to block a Fabregas effort after Messi had found the ex-Arsenal man in space.
Messi went close with a curled free-kick and as a hard fought first-half drew to a close Andrija Delibasic forced Victor Valdes into a save at the other end.
Within two minutes of the restart, Messi had doubled the lead.
Pedro Rodriguez found Martin Montoya in an advanced wide position and the right-back pulled the ball back for the little Argentinian who steered it first time into the top right corner of the net.
Javi Fuego then hit a rasping left footed drive that Valdes pushed wide and Jordi Amat tried his luck from distance as the home side looked for a quick way back into the match.
Valdes was earning his wages as he next got down well to stop another drive from Fuego.
Barcelona were quick to sense the danger and began to close down the game with a more measured approach that restricted Rayo’s attacking forays.
Xavi and Fabregas then added two more in two minutes with 10 minutes remaining.
With two minutes left, Messi raced onto a Fabregas pass to get his second and his side’s fifth.
Earlier, in-form Malaga were held to a 0-0 draw at struggling Espanyol.
The Andalusian side rested Joaquin Sanchez and Javier Saviola after wins over Valladolid and AC Milan in the last seven days, but in a game of very few chances they could not find a way past Espanyol who moved off the bottom of the table.
The point means Malaga will remain in third position as Real Madrid, who play Mallorca on Sunday, are four points behind on 14 points.
Betis move into fourth on 16 points after a 1-0 home win over Valencia thanks to an early Salva Sevilla goal.
Despite a string of chances for Spain striker Roberto Soldado, the away side left empty-handed and have only one point to show from five away trips this season.
Deportivo La Coruna earned a much needed point with a 1-1 draw at Celta Vigo in the Galician derby to bring to an end a run of four defeats.
Juan Dominguez equalised for Deportivo after Mario Bermejo had opened the scoring, both in the first period.
Celta defender Gustavo Cabral was red-carded just after the interval.
Espanyol 0, Malaga 0
Real Betis 1, Valencia 0
Celta Vigo 1, Deportivo La Coruna 1
Rayo Vallecano 0, Barcelona 5