Madrid: Lionel Messi scored his 14th Barcelona hat-trick, and fifth of the season, as the champions cruised to a 4-1 win at Malaga on Sunday to close the gap on Real Madrid at the top of La Liga to just two points.
Messi found the target in the 33rd, 50th and 80th minutes to take his season's goal tally to 22, one more than Real's Cristiano Ronaldo whose side can restore their five-point advantage when they face Athletic Bilbao later Sunday.
This was only Barca’s fourth league victory on their travels and Messi’s goals also brought to an end a poor personal run as of his 19 goals going into the game only one had come away from home.
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola left Carles Puyol, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez on the bench with one eye on Wednesday's King’s Cup quarter-final second leg clash with Real, where his side defend a 2-1 lead.
Still it was a sluggish first half from the Catalan side and Malaga had the better openings notably for Isco Alarcon, who had a shot well-saved by keeper Victor Valdes.
He was denied twice more by the shot-stopper with a header and a close range strike.
But Messi then headed home an Adriano cross to put the visitors ahead after 33 minutes.
After the break Barcelona raised the tempo with Alexis Sanchez and Messi both scoring within five minutes and the Argentine in particular had clicked into gear.
He hit a free-kick against the woodwork before out-running the defence to slot in his third of the night.
With five minutes to go, substitute Jose Rondon claimed a consolation for Malaga.
Guardiola praised another impressive Messi contribution.
"To be consistent over a long period is very difficult and he has now rediscovered his touch in front of goal and that is very important for the games ahead," said the coach.
"We have had an excellent first half of the season and our rival (Real Madrid) have taken some of the credit away from us but still we have dropped too many points where we shouldn't have done."
Real take on Bilbao needing to perform more like the side which has won admirers for their attacking football, that has led to 63 goals in the league so far, rather than the defensive side that played Barca in the King's Cup.
Coach Jose Mourinho's main concern is that they stop leaking goals.
"The statistics show that we have conceded two goals against Malaga, one against Mallorca and another against Barcelona which is too many," he said.
Valencia continue to struggle as they could only draw 1-1 in a scrappy game against Osasuna.
But they still hold a five-point lead over Levante, who face Zaragoza later Sunday, in the fight for third place.
A late goal from Roberto Soldado with five minutes to go looked as though it would give Valencia a victory they did little to deserve.
But, in injury time, midfielder David Albelda was given a straight red for a rash challenge and from the resulting free-kick Osasuna equalised.
Keeper Diego Alves could only knock the ball back into play after a header from Dejan Lekic and substitute Lolo Ortiz rammed it home from close range.
Valencia were looking to bounce back from a home defeat by Real Sociedad last weekend but chances were few and far between in a cagey first half.
After the break the Valencia keeper did well to repel a header from Raul Garcia and then a free-kick from Javad Nekounam, and the game was petering out until the dramatic finale.
Mallorca eased their relegation fears with a second half Ivan Ramis header giving them a 1-0 win away to Rayo Vallecano.
The home side had the better of the openings with Piti Luna, Michu Perez and Jose Casado all going close in the first half but Ramis snatched the victory for Mallorca after jumping highest at a corner after 56 minutes.