MADRID, Spain, December 2 – Lionel Messi closed in on Gerd Mueller’s scoring mark as Barcelona crushed Athletic Bilbao 5-1 to set a new record for the best ever start to a La Liga season and stay 11 points clear of Real Madrid.
Defending champions Real edged city rivals Atletico 2-0 with Cristiano Ronaldo on target to keep their slender hopes of a title repeat alive.
Barca have now put together 13 wins and a draw from their first 14 matches to beat the previous best start set by Real in the 1991-92 season.
“It is great to have achieved this but I am happier still with the performance of my players and that even at 5-1 we continued to keep pressing and trying to score,” said Barca coach Tito Vilanova.
“There are still things we can improve on and we can still work harder.”
Gerard Pique put the Catalan side ahead after 22 minutes followed quickly by Messi’s first, which came off defender Fernando Amorebieta on the line, before Adriano Correia hit the third on the point of half-time.
Cesc Fabregas then added to the deluge of goals and Ibai Gomez got a consolation before Messi struck again.
Messi is now just one goal off Mueller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year set for Bayern Munich and Germany in 1972.
Barca had their first sight of goal with a low drive from Andres Iniesta after 12 minutes which keeper Gorka Iraizoz saved comfortably.
They got their breakthrough after a spell of pressure.
Athletic failed to clear their lines from a corner and although Iraizoz repelled Fabregas’ shot, Pique pounced on the rebound to knock it home.
Minutes later and Barca doubled their lead due in part to slack defending which has plagued Athletic’s season.
Fernando Amorebieta failed to keep tight to Messi who slipped the ball past the keeper and a despairing dive from the defender only served to help the ball over the line.
Messi hit the post before Adriano burst in from the right and fired a Fabregas pass into the roof of the net.
There was no let up after the restart and Iraizoz did well to block Messi but could do nothing to stop Fabregas who fired home an Iniesta pass.
Barca were guilty of easing off as Gomez pulled a goal back but Messi had the final say with his second.
Atletico Madrid, riding high in second place, felt they had their best chance to beat Real Madrid since their last triumph in October 1999 but they rarely threatened.
“We controlled the game at 1-0 and we didn’t have many problems at the back. During half-time we spoke about getting a second as Atletico have players that can score at any moment,” said coach Jose Mourinho’s assistant Aitor Karanka.
“We knew it would be a tough game as Atletico came with a lot of confidence and had a lot of points.”
Atletico’s Argentine coach Diego Simeone has brought success based on solidity.
The midfield of Gabi Fernandez and Mario Suarez were holding their own and the visitors had the first clear chance of the game.
Radamel Falcao got in front of Pepe to prod a Diego Costa pass goalwards but keeper Iker Casillas managed to palm the ball behind.
Ronaldo has had a quiet run by his own high standards without a goal in three games but he responded on 15 minutes with a free-kick from fully 30 yards which nestled in the corner.
Ronaldo blazed wide from the edge of the area after 53 minutes and then set up Mesut Ozil to volley home the second from 15 yards.
The Portuguese also hit the post twice in the closing stages.
Mauricio Pellegrino was sacked as manager of Valencia following his side’s 5-2 defeat at home to Real Sociedad.
The game swung on the first half dismissal of Jonas Goncalves with Valencia ahead through Roberto Soldado.
Alberto De la Bella equalised before the break and further goals came from Mikel Gonzalez, Diego Ifran, Imanol Agirretxe and Carlos Vela from the penalty spot while Soldado also got a second.