Seville: After Lionel Messi scored a wonderful third goal to complete his 51st career hat-trick, Real Betis supporters did what only true fans can do when in the presence of genuine football genius.
They stood up, applauded Messi and joined with Barcelona fans in chanting out his name.
No, the game wasn’t at Camp Nou. It was the Benito Villamarin Stadium in Seville that resounded with “Messi! Messi! Messi!”
It may end up as simply another superb performance by Messi, among so many in his trophy-laden career. But this game will be remembered by the 54,000 mostly Betis spectators who turned up on Sunday to back their team, only to end up honouring the man who helped deal them a hefty defeat.
Messi said he had never received such a tribute from opposing fans.
“No, I can’t remember that happening before. I am grateful, we are always treated well when he play here,” Messi said after his 45th hat-trick for Barcelona, and six for Argentina.
“I was fortunate enough to get the goals and we took the three points because we had a great chance to increase the distance with Atletico that we couldn’t let get away.”
Barcelona’s victory let them open up a commanding 10-point lead over Atletico Madrid in La Liga.
To round off the memorable night, Messi added another milestone to his list by surpassing Xavi Hernandez with a club record 477th win.
Messi struck with a powerful free-kick in the 17th minute. He added a second goal just before halftime from a pass by Luis Suarez, who scored a fine goal of his own midway through the second half.
But Messi saved his best for late after substitute Loren Moron had pulled one back for the hosts. In the 85th, Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer used one touch of his left boot to float the ball from the left side of the box over goalkeeper Pau Lopez. His shot grazed the underside of the bar before going in, triggering the outburst of praise from Betis fans.
Barcelona are now undefeated in 16 rounds and are on course to successfully defend their league title after taking full advantage of Atletico’s 2-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
Ernesto Valverde’s team have also reached the final of the Copa del Rey — a competition it has won four years in a row — and will face Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the Champions League next month.
There are 10 rounds remaining, but with Messi and his teammates playing at this level and with such a large cushion of points, only a complete collapse could deny Barcelona a 26th league title and their eighth in 11 years.
“It depends on us and staying aware that nothing is decided yet,” Messi said. “Worse things have happened. There are still lots of points in play and we have to keep playing like this.”