LIONEL MESSI broke the Spanish hat-trick record and Luis Suárez struck twice as a rampant Barcelona took over top spot in La Liga with a 6-1 hammering of Rayo Vallecano yesterday.
Watched by girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo and son Thiago, who also came on to the pitch afterwards, Messi came alive after half-time at the Nou Camp to net his 32nd treble for Barca in all competitions in the space of just 12 minutes.
It meant he eclipsed the record of the most hat-tricks ever recorded in Spanish football that he had shared with Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra.
The Argentinian's second-half Tour de Force against a side reduced to 10 men with the dismissal of Tito - Barca themselves had Dani Alves sent off late in the game - included a goal scored from a retaken penalty after he had seen the first saved.
It helped put Barca back in control at the head of La Liga, after an equal amount of games played, for the first time since the start of November.
Barca are now on 62 points - one clear of Real Madrid, who were beaten by Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, and are now in pole position two weeks ahead of Madrid's visit to their Nou Camp fortress in El Clasico.
"Being leaders is not something that we are concentrating on much at the moment as there is still a long way to go in the league," defender Gerard Pique said.
"We started the season well, then we had a drop in form and it looks like we are playing well again now."
Barca scored with their first shot on goal after five minutes with Xavi releasing Suarez, who tucked a clinical shot into the corner with the outside of his right boot.
Four minutes after half-time, the floodgates opened when Gerard Pique knocked in from close range following a Jordi Alba header from a corner which came back off a post.
When Suarez was felled in the penalty area in the 56th-minute by Tito, who received a red card, Messi's penalty was saved by keeper Cristian Alvarez but the referee ordered a retake due to encroachment in the area.
Inevitably, Messi made no mistake second time around and he then knocked in a rebound after 63 minutes, before completing his historic hat-trick, the 24th of his La Liga career, five minutes later. He now has 32 Spanish hat-tricks, compared to Cristiano Ronaldo's 27.
Alberto Bueno netted a consolation penalty for Rayo after he had been fouled by Alves, who was given his marching orders.
Messi then set up Suarez for his second in injury time to complete the rout.
"We were only able to score one goal in the first half although we had other openings," Barca coach Luis Enrique said.
"Our objective is to be leaders at the end of the championship. I think there will be defeats for both of us (including Real) and there are areas where we need to improve."
Meanwhile, La Liga leaders Real Madrid suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat away to mid-table Athletic Bilbao on Saturday after a bullet header from Aritz Aduriz in the first half secured the points.
Aduriz outjumped defender Pepe to power a Mikel Rico cross into the top corner after 26 minutes of a frenetic first half.
The game was lost in the first half when Athletic scored and then in the second half we were unable to get back into the match," said Real coach Carlo Ancelotti.
"It is not a physical problem as in the second half we had a lot of the ball but we were unable to create clear chances."
Real have taken just one point from their last two games.
Real were denied time on the ball by Bilbao, who are on a high after booking a place in the King's Cup final with victory over Espanyol on Wednesday.
Bilbao were unable to maintain the pressure after the break and Real began to dominate possession but the visitors struggled to create openings.
In Germany, Thomas Mueller scored twice as Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich came from a goal down to beat Hanover 3-1 on Saturday.
Bayern, who host Shakhtar Donetsk in their Champions League last-16 second leg next week, lacked their usual spark for the first hour, dominating possession but failing with the final ball on several occasions.
The victory also ensured Bayern winger Arjen Robben broke a Bundesliga record for recording 100 wins in the fewest matches, having reached the milestone in just 126 games.