MADRID (AFP) - Lionel Messi marked his 400th appearance in La Liga with the opening goal as Barcelona eased to a 3-0 win over Levante at the Camp Nou on Sunday (Jan 7).
Messi's 365th goal in Spain's top flight came inside 12 minutes, with Luis Suarez adding the second before the interval and Paulinho completing the victory late on as Barcelona stretched their lead at the top of the table back to nine points over Atletico Madrid.
The Catalans are still unbeaten in La Liga this season and have Philippe Coutinho to come in, with the Brazilian expected to be officially unveiled as a Barcelona player on Monday following the announcement of his 160 million-euro (S$255 million) move from Liverpool.
The 25-year-old Brazilian, whose transfer is the third-biggest in football history, was not in attendance at the Camp Nou as the club's previous record recruit Ousmane Dembele started.
The Frenchman, signed for 105 million euros from Borussia Dortmund at the start of the campaign, was included in the line-up for the first time since tearing his hamstring nearly four months ago.
He came close to scoring on a couple of occasions, including from one 20-yard strike that was beaten away by Levante's ex-Barcelona goalkeeper Oier Olazabal.
But it was Messi who broke the deadlock from a Jordi Alba assist, a combination that has proved fruitful on so many occasions this season.
The Argentine's flighted pass found Alba, and the left-back headed the ball down for Messi, arriving in the area, to finish first-time in off the far post for his 16th league goal of the campaign.
The second goal arrived seven minutes before the interval, as Suarez controlled Sergi Roberto's fine ball into the box before firing home.
It was the Uruguayan's 400th professional goal, his 131st for Barca putting him seventh on the club's all-time list of leading scorers.
Levante, who have now won just once in 13 La Liga games and are hovering just above the drop zone, did not threaten a comeback in the second half.
A little over half-full Camp Nou did afford Dembele an ovation as he came off in the 67th minute to be replaced by Nelson Semedo.
And Barca rounded out the victory in the third minute of added time as Messi's low ball across goal at the end of a jinking run was turned in by Paulinho.
Atletico beat Getafe 2-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday, with Diego Costa scoring and then being sent off in his first league appearance since returning to the club from Chelsea.
Valencia are 11 points behind Barcelona in third after coming from behind to beat Girona 2-1 at Mestalla on Saturday.
Real Madrid are a massive 17 points adrift of the leaders in fourth spot, although they do have two games in hand, including away to Celta Vigo on Sunday evening.