BARCELONA, Spain — Lionel Messi scored his 22nd double of 2012 to reach 90 goals as Barcelona beat closest rival Atletico Madrid 4-1 on Sunday, opening up a nine-point lead and sitting 13 in front of Real Madrid in the Spanish league.
It was Barcelona’s league-record 15th victory in 16 rounds and came just after floundering Madrid had conceded in the final minutes to draw 2-2 at home with the Catalan club’s crosstown rival Espanyol.
“This league is ours to lose,” said Barcelona defender Gerard Pique.
Atletico striker Radamel Falcao was brilliant early and opened the scoring in the 31st minute. But Adriano sparked Barcelona’s resurgence five minutes later with an unstoppable long-range strike, and Sergio Busquets made it 2-1 before halftime.
Messi put the result beyond doubt in the 57th and had the final word in the 88th minute to prolong his incredible year.
“Messi is the best player in the world,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone. “We brought out our best weapons, but Barcelona is playing at a different level. You can’t do anything against their determination. This league is boring.”
The game at Camp Nou stadium had been billed as a showdown between Messi and Falcao, the league’s top two scorers. And it didn’t disappoint as both stars took exquisite goals in addition to Adriano’s screamer.
Messi now has 25 goals in the league this season. Falcao is next with 17.
Atletico showed more fight and created more chances in the first half hour than it had in 90 minutes in its painful loss at Madrid two rounds beforehand.
Falcao ran rampant and had come close twice before deservedly breaking through when Diego Costa stole the ball from Messi and played Falcao clear to float a delicate lob over goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
But Adriano snapped Barcelona out of its doldrums with a vicious left-footed strike from outside the area that curled off the underside of the crossbar for his fifth goal this season.
“Adriano gave us a boost and we dominated the rest of the way,” said Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova.
The game swung in Barcelona’s favor, with Busquets scoring when the ball fell to him from a corner in first-half added time.
Messi’s first goal was like so many he has scored in his stellar career. He took Alexis Sanchez’s pass, went by Juanfran Torres with a burst of speed to place the ball on his left foot before unleashing a low shot just inside the left upright.
The Argentina forward finished the scoring in the 88th when he stole Diego Godin’s attempt at a back-heeled pass inside his own area and knocked it in for his 14th double of the season. He has netted two goals in each of his past eight starts.
Messi passed German great Gerd Mueller’s 40-year-old milestone of 85 goals in one year last weekend.
Elsewhere, Levante rose to fifth place after winning 1-0 at Real Zaragoza, while Rayo Vallecano beat Valencia 1-0 for its first ever victory at Mestalla stadium after 13 winless visits.
Madrid appeared set to record its seventh straight home win in the league after Cristiano Ronaldo scored to cancel out Sergio Garcia’s opener and set up Fabio Coentrao to put Madrid up after halftime.
But Espanyol substitute Juan Albin scored from a poorly defended corner for a share of the points two minutes from time.
Madrid has already dropped 15 points, one more than it let slip in all of last season.
The blow to Madrid’s dwindling title defense hopes came just four days after it lost at Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey.
After the loss to Celta, Madrid coach Jose Mourinho was scathing of his player’s attitude. He was no less so Sunday.
“Cristiano had a good game, his teammates did not,” said Mourinho. “The league is practically impossible. (13 points) are too many at this stage of the season. I have never been in a situation like this, dropping so many points and with a team so far from its objectives.”
Relegation-threatened Espanyol remained unbeaten in three games under new coach Javier Aguirre and managed to end a run of seven straight losses to Madrid in which it had been outscored 21-0.
Espanyol stunned the Santiago Bernabeu crowd in the 31st when Garcia struck on the break from an incisive pass by Joan Verdu.
Ronaldo equalized in first-half injury time when he used the sole of his right boot to reach beyond his marker and volley Sami Khedira’s cross beyond goalkeeper Kiko Casilla.
Ronaldo and Coentrao then put Madrid in front in the 48th when Ronaldo found his sprinting fellow Portugal international with a well-placed pass inside the box that he rolled into the net.
But Madrid’s effort sputtered out and for the first time Espanyol took control of the ball. And the payoff came when Madrid allowed Hector Moreno to get two touches on a corner before slipping the ball for the unmarked Albin to fire home.
“The point makes me happy for my boys,” said Aguirre. “Nobody would have batted an eye if Madrid had beaten us by four or five goals.”