Lionel Messi scored his latest Barca hat trick to go level with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in the pichichi top scorer race, with Luis Suarez netting twice and Gerard Pique also finding the back of the net.
With Madrid suffering a 1-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, Barca are now the team in La Liga this season with the most points with 62, most goals scored with 76 and least goals conceded in 16.
Speaking after Barca had gone top of the standings for the first time since Oct. 31, Luis Enrique told his postmatch news conference that his team could not relax as there are likely to be more upsets before the campaign finishes.
“The objective is to be top when the season ends,” he said. “I always said the big teams would suffer defeats, and it will keep happening. So we must remain on guard. We have earned the situation we are in now.”
Messi’s hat trick included a penalty, which was retaken after the first attempt was missed, only for the referee to spot encroachment from a Rayo player.
Luis Enrique reiterated that the Argentina captain, who had previously missed three penalties from six this season, remained the club’s first-choice taker.
“The penalty depends on how the player feels,” he said. “The first on the list is Leo Messi, who can pass it on to a teammate and has done before.”
Lionel Messi struck a hat trick inside 12 minutes.
Suarez both began and ended the scoring, and has now found the back of the net in four consecutive games, meaning the suspended Neymar — who had permission to travel to Brazil this weekend for his sister’s birthday — was not missed.
“Luis and Messi understand each other well — better all the time,” Luis Enrique said. “They have good chemistry and them linking up is good for the team.”
Barca right-back Dani Alves was sent off late on for a professional foul which led to Alberto Bueno scoring Rayo’s late consolation from the penalty spot, while Jordi Alba’s booking also means he will miss next weekend’s trip to out-of-form Eibar.
Luis Enrique conceded his selection for that game would be tricky, given Sergio Busquets remains sidelined with an ankle injury and a yellow card for Javier Mascherano next week would see him miss March 22’s clasico at home to Madrid.
“It is not the best situation to be going into a game at Eibar,” Luis Enrique said. “We will look at how things are, and see if it is worth taking the risk or not. We know that any member of our squad can be trusted.”
Barca’s season is now coming together nicely, with the club having this week qualified for the Copa del Rey final, while they take a 2-1 lead into the Champions League last-16 second leg at home to Manchester City on March 18.
“To be in the Copa final we have overcome difficult opponents,” Luis Enrique said. “We must be prudent in every way — in La Liga and in the Champions League.”