MADRID, Spain, Feb 25 – Luis Suarez hit a hat-trick and Philippe Coutinho scored a brilliant first league goal for Barcelona as the La Liga leaders thrashed Girona 6-1 on Saturday to open up a 10-point lead at the top of the table.
Lionel Messi continued his return to goalscoring form with a double to reach 30 in all competitions for the season, as Barca extended their advantage over closest title rivals Atletico Madrid, who visit Sevilla on Sunday.
Real Madrid remain off the pace in third, despite a comfortable 4-0 victory over Alaves that saw Cristiano Ronaldo net a double and Gareth Bale back on the scoresheet.
It was the perfect outing for Barcelona after ninth-placed Girona had taken a shock early lead on their first-ever visit to the Camp Nou, as Coutinho, Suarez, Messi and Ousmane Dembele shone on their first start together.
Portu took advantage of hesitation from Barca centre-back Samuel Umtiti to round goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and slot into an empty net to put Girona ahead in La Liga’s newest Catalan derby.
The hosts took less than two minutes to get back on level terms, though, as Messi collected the ball in midfield before sending Suarez through to score.
Messi’s wizardry put Ernesto Valverde’s side in front on the half-hour mark, after Suarez touched down a long pass from Andres Iniesta for the Argentinian.
It looked as though the chance had gone when Messi was forced wide, but the league’s top scorer showed trademark footwork to jink past several defenders before slotting into the bottom corner.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner was running the show, and he doubled the advantage just seven minutes later with a low free-kick under the wall.
“It always seems that he has done everything and then suddenly, he surprises us again, as with his free kick. It sounds easy but it is not,” said Barca coach Ernesto Valverde.
Having gone five games without a goal before his crucial equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea in the Champions League in midweek, Messi has scored three in two games.
Barcelona’s fourth goal came on the stroke of half-time with Girona’s defenders left begging for the interval after Messi’s perfectly-weighted pass found Coutinho to square for Suarez to tap in.
The Catalan giants eased off slightly in the second half, but Coutinho got off the mark in the league in style as he cut inside and curled a long-range strike into the far corner.
French winger Dembele played his part too late on as he crossed from the left for Suarez to complete a hat-trick.
After a slow start to the campaign, the Uruguayan forward has now scored 17 goals in his last 14 league matches.
– Selfless Ronaldo –
Earlier on Saturday, Real coach Zinedine Zidane hailed Ronaldo’s selflessness after the forward gave up the chance of a hat-trick by allowing Benzema to take a late penalty at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Zidane restored Bale to the starting XI to reunite the ‘BBC’ front line of the Welshman, Ronaldo and Benzema.
Ronaldo, whose first goal was created by a magnificent Benzema flick, stood aside in the 89th minute to allow the Frenchman to convert only his fourth league goal of the season.
“The gesture of Cristiano is very important,” said Zidane. “After the game he played, Karim just needed to score a goal.
“He (Ronaldo) had opportunities, he scored twice. After there is this gesture of Cristiano for Karim.
“This proves that between them, there is a good atmosphere, a good relationship, and to win and continue what we’re doing, it’s super important.”
The reigning champions’ title hopes are all but over, with Real 14 points adrift of Barca, but a run of four straight wins has ended any worries of missing out on a Champions League spot.
“Confidence returns from playing these kinds of matches,” added Zidane.
“After our match against PSG (3-1 win in Champions League), we’ve been doing much better, maybe there was a missing part or something like that.”