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Levante's defender Jose Gomez Campana (left), in action against FC Barcelona's forward Lionel Messi (right), during their La Liga soccer match between Levante UD and FC Barcelona at Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain. Image Credit: AP

Barcelona: With a hat-trick and two assists, Lionel Messi showed again this weekend why Barcelona are favoured by many to successfully defend their La Liga title.

Sevilla and Atletico Madrid may be only three points behind as the season approaches the midway mark, but neither challengers can count on the unrivalled talent of Messi to single-handedly turn competitive matches into blowouts.

Messi reached the 50-goal mark for club and country in 2018 by scoring a hat-trick to fuel Barcelona’s 5-0 route at Levante on Sunday.

Before netting his 43rd career hat-trick for Barcelona, Messi set up Luis Suarez to score just after Levante had struck the woodwork and appeared to be in charge. He then went on to net his 18th, 19th and 20th goals of the season before helping Gerard Pique polish off the big win.

“I don’t know how to evaluate Messi, and that is the most common question I am asked,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “He is the player that makes us play the way we do and scores incredible goals.”

While their challengers are still within striking distance, Barcelona seem to have found their championship stride as the season approaches the winter break coming after the next round.

Valverde’s side has scored 46 times through 16 rounds, far more than Sevilla, who have the second-best attack with 29 goals scored.

Messi and Suarez have combined to score 25 of those goals, giving the South American stars one more goal than the entire teams of Atletico or fourth-placed Real Madrid.

“Luis and Leo have proven to be the best attacking pair (in football) in recent years,” Pique said. “Luis has goals in his blood and Leo, what more can I say? We have firepower up front and just needed to improve at the back, and that is what we are doing.”