Messi’s hat trick helps Barcelona set new unbeaten mark

AP

Lionel Messi scored a hat trick as Barcelona defeated nine-man Rayo Vallecano 5-1 to become the first Spanish club to play 35 consecutive matches without a loss, breaking Real Madrid’s record of nearly three decades ago.

Midfielder Ivan Rakitic opened the scoring, Messi added the second, third and fourth goals, and Arda Turan topped it off late.

Rayo had two players sent off with straight red cards, Diego Llorente when they were 2-0 behind, and Manuel Iturra at 3-1 down. Luis Suarez missed a penalty kick with his team up 3-1.

It was Barcelona’s 10th win in a row in the Spanish League, keeping it eight points ahead of second-place Atletico Madrid, which defeated Real Sociedad 3-0 on Tuesday.

Real Madrid remained 12 points behind after defeating last-place Levante 3-1 on Wednesday.

Real Madrid’s record of 34 unbeaten games was set under coach Leo Beenhakker and with players such as Emilio Butragueno and Hugo Sanchez. That run ended in a 2-0 loss at Celta Vigo in 1989.

Barcelona earlier this year had already broken its own club record of 29 games without a loss in all competitions, a mark that had been set by Pep Guardiola’s squad in 2011. Luis Enrique’s team hasn’t lost since a 2-1 defeat at Sevilla in the league’s seventh round in October.

Barcelona tied Real Madrid’s offense as the best in the league this season with 74 goals scored in 27 games.

Rayo has lost 10 straight games to Barcelona, being outscored 28-4 in the last six. Its previous win over the Catalan club was in 2002. It lost 5-2 earlier this season, when Neymar scored four goals at Nou Camp.

Rayo was coming off three consecutive 2-2 draws in the league and was unbeaten in seven games. The loss left the team from Madrid 17th in the 20-team standings, just outside relation zone.

Rakitic opened the scoring after a blunder by Rayo goalkeeper, Juan Carlos, who dropped the ball at his feet after a high cross by Sergi Roberto into the area. Juan Carlos had just made a difficult save on a shot by Messi a few moments earlier.

Messi started his scoring spree just a minute later after a pass by Neymar inside the box, then added another shortly after the interval when Suarez struck the post, and netted his third from close range. The Argentine star, who had a goal disallowed in the ninth minute, now has 19 league goals.

Turan closed the scoring with a header late on.

Angolan striker Alberto Manucho scored Rayo’s lone goal with a header.

Rayo played a man down after a hard foul by Llorente on Rakitic, and Chilean defender Iturra was red-carded for the foul on Sergio Busquets that prompted the penalty for Barcelona.

Suarez’s powerful shot from the spot was saved by Juan Carlos. The Uruguayan, who leads the league with 25 goals, had already missed a penalty kick against Sporting Gijon last month.

Barcelona’s next game is at Eibar on Sunday. Rayo plays at Espanyol on Monday.

Big clubs eye changes

AP

Closing off European soccer competitions to elite clubs could make them far richer, according to the American sports executive who has held talks with leading English Premier League teams about a shake-up to long-established league structures.

Relevent Sports chairman Charlie Stillitano met Tuesday in London with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United about this year’s International Champions Cup, an annual preseason friendly tournament that’s organized by his company.

Stillitano confirmed Thursday that they also talked about “restructuring the Champions League,” an issue high on the European Club Association agenda amid a power vacuum at UEFA.

Stillitano revealed that European soccer’s governing body has been keen on working with the ICC, which already attracts some of the world’s wealthiest teams to compete in games across the globe for a lucrative but meaningless prize.

“We have even talked to UEFA in the past because they had an interest in our summer tournament,” Stillitano told the U.S. satellite radio station SiriusXM. “That is something they would like to integrate into their portfolio.”