Lionel Messi reaches 50 goals in 2018 as hat-trick helps Barcelona sink Levante
Manager Ernesto Valverde pays tribute to Argentine striker as La Liga leaders triumph 5-0
Ernesto Valverde admitted Barcelona's last visit to Levante was still on their minds as Lionel Messi inspired them to a 5-0 victory on Sunday.
Messi scored yet another hat-trick as Barcelona laid a few ghosts and cemented their place at the top of LaLiga.
The Argentina star completed his 49th career hat-trick with his 50th goal for club and country of 2018 as Barca romped to a 5-0 victory to ensure they remain three points clear at the summit.
The reigning champions needed no reminder of their last visit to the Ciutat de Valencia, when their dream of completing an unbeaten domestic campaign was extinguished in a sensational 5-4 defeat in May - their penultimate game of the season.
"We are happy because last year we played here and conceded five after a whole season without losing," Barca coach Valverde said. "That was only a few months ago, they are having a great season and they keep showing that.
"We remembered last year and we managed to put it behind us and leave with a clean sheet."
Levante started well again on Sunday and could have taken the lead when Emmanuel Boateng hammered a shot against the underside of the crossbar which just stayed out.
"Because of the result it will look easy, but it wasn't so much, especially at the beginning," he said. "They started as we imagined.
"We had to change the set-up based on the casualties we had so it was difficult for us and they squeezed us.
"They're able to score and dangerous when they counter-attack but we had the fortune of opening the score."
Boateng's miss proved costly as two minutes later Enis Bardhi's attempt to play his way out of trouble backfired spectacularly.
The loose ball fell to Messi, who jinked his way across the outside of the penalty area before providing an improbable reverse pass for Luis Suarez to volley home.
Two minutes before half-time Messi doubled the lead, this time after a mistake by Ruben Rochina on the halfway line.
Rochina's pass went straight to Sergio Busquets, who immediately sent Messi racing through to fire through the legs of keeper Oier and into the net.
Levante had clearly not learned their lesson as, two minutes after the restart, another loose pass in midfield handed Barca their third.
This time Suarez led the charge before feeding Jordi Alba, who drove the ball across the area for Messi to sweep home.
Messi completed his treble on the hour, Suarez bulldozing his way down the left before crossing to Arturo Vidal, who laid the ball back for the Argentinian to tap in.
Valverde said of the Argentina ace: "I don't know how to describe Messi, it's the most asked question. He is the player who makes us play and scores great goals."
Levante's already slim hopes of replicating last season's scoreline disappeared when they lost Erick Cabaco to a red card 14 minutes from the end.
Instead Gerard Pique helped himself to the fifth, wandering the length of the
field exchanging passes as he went before wrapping up the scoring.
Valverde added: "We're in a good dynamic and now we have the game with Celta, which is important in order to go on our holidays with this advantage (at the top of table)".
Updated: December 17, 2018 09:53 AM