MADRID: Lionel Messi became the first player to notch 300 La Liga goals as his double blast powered Barcelona to a 3-1 win at Sporting Gijon that sent them six points clear at the top of the table on Wednesday.
“To have Messi is a privilege,” coach Luis Enrique told reporters. “We are where we wanted to be.”
Luis Suarez missed a second-half penalty but made amends soon after by scoring the third goal to take his tally in all competitions to 40 this season.
The match at El Molinon was originally due to be played in December but had to be switched because of Barca’s involvement in the Club World Cup in Japan.
Barca now have 60 points from 24 matches, six more than second-placed Atletico Madrid and seven ahead of Real Madrid.
Messi grabbed his landmark 300th La Liga goal in the 25th minute when he cut in from the right, past two defenders on the edge of the box, and hit a left-foot shot into the bottom corner.
The lead lasted two minutes before Gijon launched a fast counter-attack as Pablo Perez passed to left winger Alex Menendez and his low cross was turned home at the far post by striker Carlos Castro.
Messi, playing in his 334th La Liga match, restored Barca’s lead just past the half hour when Suarez shielded the ball with his back to goal and laid it off to the Argentine who steered it into the net with the outside of his left foot.
Ivan Cuellar denied Messi a hat-trick a minute later when he parried his shot and Brazilian Neymar almost scored when he curled the rebound on to the far post.
Neymar was awarded a 62nd-minute spot kick when he was brought down by Cuellar but the goalkeeper dived to his right to save Suarez’s effort, the seventh penalty miss by a Barca player this season.
Suarez atoned for the miss when he fought his way past a defender on the right five minutes later and curled a fine shot in off the far post to take his total as La Liga’s top marksman this season to 24.
“We’ll have to work on this matter of the penalties (though) it doesn’t worry me at all,” said Luis Enrique.
“It’s obvious we want to improve but we have confidence in Luis, Messi and Neymar because they are great penalty takers.”