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La Liga: Messi’s hat trick; Barca tie record of 38 games unbeaten

Lionel Messi

FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Leganes at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, April 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)


BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi scored a hat trick and ensured Barcelona equaled a Spanish league record of 38 matches without a loss after beating Leganes 3-1 on Saturday.

Barcelona matched Real Sociedad’s milestone set in 1979-80 by remaining undefeated through 31 rounds this season after finishing the last campaign without a loss over the final seven games. The runaway leader hasn’t lost in La Liga in a year.

Ernesto Valverde’s side can establish a new unbeaten record if it doesn’t lose to Valencia next weekend. It will then have another six rounds left in its quest to finish the entire campaign without a defeat.

“This is one of those records that goes down in history,” Valverde said. “I am excited to have matched it because of what it means, and what it meant at that time for Real (Sociedad). Over time you realize its importance.”

Reaching the mark set by Sociedad underscores the exceptional job Valverde is doing in his first year with the team. Despite having Messi and other top players, Barcelona entered the season reeling from the unwanted departure of star striker Neymar and back-to-back losses to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

Eight months later and Barcelona is marching toward the recovery of the Liga title from Madrid. It opened a 12-point lead over second-place Atletico Madrid before it faces third-place Madrid in a derby on Sunday.

Messi scored from a free kick for the seventh time this season before completing his third league hat trick in 2017-18.

The Argentina forward earned a foul from Leganes defender Dimitrios Siovas a few meters outside the top of the area, to the right. It was a perfect spot for him to curl a left-footed strike high beyond the reach of diving goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar.

Messi followed up on his 27th-minute opener with a second goal five minutes later, slotting a low strike in after Coutinho met his run into the box.

Barcelona paid for its complacency in the second half when Leganes forward Nabil El Zhar stuck on a counterattack in the 68th, after his shot grazed Sergi Roberto beat goalie Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Messi flipped his third goal over Cuellar after receiving a pass from Ousmane Dembele in the 87th.

The treble took Messi’s league-leading tally to 29.

Roberto, who has already shown his versatility playing as a midfielder, right back, or forward, added to his repertoire by playing his first match at left back for Barcelona. That let Jordi Alba rest until he went on as a late substitute along with Andres Iniesta.

Sergio Busquets and Samuel Umtiti also rested ahead of Barcelona’s return-leg Champions League quarterfinal at Roma on Tuesday. Barcelona won the first leg 4-1.