Football: Neymar, Messi guide 10-man Barca to crucial win

MADRID (AFP) - Neymar and Lionel Messi were on target as Barcelona produced a sensational first-half performance to take a huge step towards the La Liga title with a 2-0 win at local rivals Espanyol on Saturday.

The visitors dominated from the off and two goals in eight minutes sealed the win as Neymar and Messi rounded off excellent team moves.

Barca were reduced to 10 men early in the second period as Jordi Alba was given his marching orders for taking his protestations towards referee Mateu Lahoz too far, but Luis Enrique's men held on comfortably and could have even added to their lead had Neymar not blazed a glorious chance over 25 minutes from time.

Victory takes Barca four points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the table with Los Blancos not in action until Sunday when they travel to Celta Vigo.

Espanyol 'keeper Kiko Casilla kept his side in the game early on as he made two great saves to deny Neymar and Luis Suarez at the end of moves started by fine crossfield passes by Messi.

The Argentine then fed Neymar with a fine ball over the top, but there was just too much purchase on the Brazilian's finish as it looped over Casilla and over the bar.

There was nothing Casilla could do to prevent Neymar opening the scoring on 17 minutes as another stunning pass from Messi fed Alba on the left and his cross was dummied by Suarez to allow Neymar the simplest of finishes.

Barca doubled their advantage eight minutes later in controversial circumstances as Andres Iniesta's pass found Suarez in an offside position, but the flag wasn't raised and he picked out Messi at the back post, who squeezed the ball past Casilla at his near post.

That goal took Messi, Neymar and Suarez's combined tally for the season to 97 and they could even have reached a century on the day had their finishing been more precise.

Casilla made two more terrific saves to deny Neymar after good work from Suarez just before and after the break.

The visitors were then reduced to 10 men as Alba was sent-off in innocuous circumstances for his protestations towards the referee after he awarded Espanyol a goal-kick.

Barcelona still enjoyed the best of the chances with 10 men as Messi saw a shot deflected onto the post before Neymar blazed over with the goal at his mercy from Suarez's unselfish cut-back.

Claudio Bravo was finally forced to make a decent save three minutes from time as he got a strong left hand to Christian Stuani's shot across goal.

Barca's fine day was rounded off when Xavi Hernandez replaced Iniesta for the final few minutes to make his 500th La Liga appearance.

And Lahoz balanced up the numbers on the field in stoppage time by remarkably also showing Hector Moreno two yellow cards in a matter of seconds for contesting a decision.