MADRID - Lionel Messi hit four goals as he inspired Barcelona to a 5-1 victory over Valencia in the Spanish soccer league on Sunday, but the champions still remain 10 points behind leaders Real Madrid.
Messi took his league goal tally to 27 for the season and 42 in all competitions.
Pablo Piatti put third-placed Valencia ahead before Messi responded with two goals in five minutes.
Barca were in control but some excellent keeping from Diego Alves, as well as reckless finishing, prevented them seeing off Valencia earlier.
Messi completed his hat-trick with 15 minutes to go after running clear of the defence and clipping the ball over the keeper.
Substitute Xavi Hernandez lobbed the ball in for the fifth in injury time.
Athletic Bilbao scored three goals in four second-half minutes to beat Malaga 3-0 in a matchup of teams with European aspirations.
Malaga dominated the first half at the San Mames with 14 shots, but conceded in the 58th minute when Fernando Amorebieta latched on to a loose ball inside the area.
Mikel San Jose leapt over two Malaga players in the 60th to head in a corner from Gaizka Toquero, who made it 3-0 by volleying home Ander Herrera's cross-goal pass from a tight angle a minute later.
Athletic are level with fourth-placed Espanyol on points for the final Champions League spot, while Malaga are two points behind them.
Early season surpriser Levante dropped out of fourth place for the first time since November. They are one point behind Athletic and Espanyol following a 5-3 loss to Rayo Vallecano to remain the only winless club of 2012.
Alhassane Bangoura and Diego Costa both scored two goals for Rayo to win their third straight match and move within two points of fourth place.
Also on Sunday, Ikechukwu Uche scored two goals as Granada rallied to beat 10-man Real Sociedad 4-1, Victor Casadesus' brace powered Mallorca to a 4-0 win over Villarreal and Sporting Gijon drew 1-1 against Atletico Madrid in new coach Javier Clemente's first game in charge.
Like Levante, Atletico stayed one point off the fourth-place pair after almost spoiling Clemente's debut.