BARCELONA, January 14- Barcelona star Lionel Messi vindicated his selection as the World Player of the Year by netting a hat-trick in the 5-0 Spanish Cup destruction of Real Betis and now he has his sights set firmly on struggling Malaga.
The Catalan club dominated the Ballon d’Or short-list but while Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez were favourites to win, with Spain having clinched the World Cup, it was the gifted Argentine who picked up the award for a second successive year.
Relegation-threatened Malaga now face the ominous task of pitting themselves against Barca who will be seeking a record 28th straight game without defeat – they equalled their previous record tally set in the 1974-75 season with the win over Real Betis.
"Every team would want a Messi in their side and I was pleased with his three goals but especially the way he worked so hard after winning this award," said Barca coach Pep Guardiola.
Malaga striker Salomon Rondon was in an upbeat mood though about the task facing his side.
"It’s going to be a hard match but we are going there with the idea of trying to pick up points and play well," he said.
"They will feel confident at home but we have our own philosophy and mentality, and we are looking ahead to the game with the aim of picking up three points."
Real Madrid remain on the shoulders of Barcelona but lack the fluidity and fire power of their rivals.
Cristiano Ronaldo came to the rescue with a hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Villarreal last weekend and they are scouring the market for a goal scorer with Gonzalo Higuain a long term injury absentee.
On Thursday, they had to come from behind to beat city neighbours Atletico in the Spanish Cup. This weekend they meet second-from-bottom Almeria.
Once again a considerable gap has emerged between the top two sides and the rest with Villarreal eleven points behind in third.
Villarreal take on Osasuna while fourth-placed Valencia face Deportivo La Coruna.
Espanyol’s impressive run this season continues but they now have a complicated away game against Sevilla.
The Andalusian club are surprisingly down in mid-table but their confidence will have been boosted with a 3-2 win away to Real Sociedad and now they are battling to get key striker Luis Fabiano fit.
Atletico Madrid are still in the Europa League places despite their inconsistent form and now have a crucial encounter with Mallorca, who along with Getafe are below them on goal difference.
Athletic Bilbao are also in the hunt for a place in Europe and are preparing to play Racing Santander with Spain international Fernando Llorente a fitness doubt.
The position at the foot of the table remains tight with the bottom three all on 13 points.
Zaragoza are bottom but they know a victory over Levante and other results going their way would take them out of the relegation zone, while Sporting Gijon, who haven’t won since mid-October face Hercules, fresh from a 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid.
Villarreal v Osasuna, Getafe v Real Sociedad, Zaragoza v Levante, Sporting Gijon v Hercules, Athletic Bilbao v Racing Santander, Sevilla v Espanyol
Valencia v Deportivo La Coruna, Almeria v Real Madrid, Barcelona v Malaga
Atletico Madrid v Mallorca