Messi closes on Pele's goal mark
Lionel Messi continued his assault on the record for most goals in a calendar year as Barcelona moved three points clear in Spain with a 4-0 win at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.
The Argentina star netted twice, taking him to 73 overall in 2012 -- just two short of the mark set by the legendary Brazilian Pele in 1959, and 12 behind the milestone set by German striker Gerd Muller in 1972.
He gave Barca a comfortable 2-0 lead three minutes after the break with his 300th for club and country, adding to David Villa's first-half opener, and wrapped up the scoring in the 89th minute.
It took the 25-year-old to a leading 13 goals in La Liga this season and 17 in all competitions.
The victory put more pressure on second-placed Atletico Madrid, who host Osasuna on Sunday.
Defending champions Real Madrid, now 11 points adrift of their arch-rivals, cannot afford to slip up in the trip to Real Mallorca.
Barca thrashed Vallecano 7-0 in last season's corresponding fixture, but this time the home side looked like earning a more respectable result after a first half featuring striker Villa's fourth league goal this season, courtesy of Cesc Fabregas' ninth assist.
But Messi smashed in a superb 48th-minute effort after Marc Montoya delivered from the right, then 25 minutes later veteran midfielder Xavi netted his 50th in La Liga from fullback Jordi Alba's cutback.
Fabregas volleyed in Pedro's cross soon after, and Messi rounded the keeper to make it a five-star showing and extend new coach Tito Vilanova's unbeaten run in the league.
Earlier Saturday, third-placed Malaga lost ground on the leaders after being held 0-0 at Espanyol, a result which left Manuel Pellegrini's team seven points behind Barca.
Real Betis moved up to fourth with a 1-0 win at home to Valencia, while Celta Vigo drew 1-1 with third-bottom Deportivo La Coruna.
Meanwhile in Italy, AC Milan bounced back from the Champions League defeat by Malaga to snatch a much-needed victory against Genoa.
With coach Massimiliano Allegri under pressure after the club's worst start to a season since the 1940s, and owner Silvio Berlusconi sentenced to jail for tax evasion, the Rossoneri were indebted to a 77th-minute goal from young striker Stephan El Shaarawy.
The Italy international marked his 20th birthday with a close-range finish that lifted Milan up to eighth place, with three wins from nine games.
Genoa, in the club's first match under new coach Luigi Del Neri, remained in midtable.
In Saturday's other match, bottom club Siena drew 0-0 with Palermo.
Champions Juventus travel to Catania on Sunday while second-placed Napoli host Chievo.
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