SEVILLE (REUTERS) - Lionel Messi was lauded by opposition supporters on Sunday after he scored an outstanding hat-trick in Barcelona's 4-1 win at Real Betis, which put the Catalans 10 points clear at the top of the La Liga table with 10 games remaining.
With nearest challengers Atletico Madrid falling to a 2-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao the previous day, Messi got Barca off to an ideal start by drilling a free kick into the top corner of the net in the 18th minute.
The Argentine put Barca further at ease with another strike at the end of the first half, finishing off a backheeled pass from Luis Suarez as the two South American forwards carved their way through Betis's defence.
Uruguay forward Suarez had missed several clear chances to score but he finally got his reward for a lively performance with a goal in the 63rd minute, dancing past four Betis players on a dazzling run which began in his own half.
Loren Moron pulled one back for Betis in the 82nd minute but Messi replied with a sumptuous first-time lob in off the crossbar to complete his treble and the Betis supporters responded by chanting the Argentine's name and bowing down to him.
It was an utterly dominant performance from the La Liga leaders which avenged their 4-3 loss at home to Betis in November and took them on to 66 points after 28 games, while Atletico have 56 and third-placed Real Madrid have 54.
There were worries for Barca at the end of the game, however. Suarez, clearly in pain, had to receive treatment on the sidelines after hurting his ankle.