Messi brace pushes Barcelona closer to Spanish league title

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L) vies with Tenerife's Argentinian midfielder Roman Fernando (R) during their Spanish League football match at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. AFP photo

MADRID (AFP) – Lionel Messi netted his 30th and 31st league goals of the season as Barcelona inched closer to retaining their La Liga title with a 4-1 home win over relegation-threatened Tenerife at Camp Nou on Tuesday.

The Catalans are now four points clear of Real Madrid at the summit with just two games left, but Real have a game in hand and must win at fourth-placed Real Mallorca on Wednesday to keep their title hopes alive.

Messi put Barcelona ahead on 17 minutes and added a second in the final minute to stay on course to win the Pichichi crown for the league's top scorer, as he is currently six goals ahead of his nearest rival, Real striker Gonzalo Higuain.

Argentine Roman Martinez stunned the champions by equalising for Tenerife shortly before half-time following an error from home captain Carles Puyol.

But second-half goals from Bojan Krkic (in the 63rd minute) and substitute Pedro Rodriguez (77) turned the game in Barca's favour before Messi rubbed salt in the wound with his late strike.

"It was a difficult night due to the weather and the fixture list is already taking its toll but we gave our all," said Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

"It is a very competitive league and we have won our game and now we just have to wait."

Barcelona will hope Mallorca can do them a favour against Real as they turn their focus to Saturday's tough trip to Champions League hopefuls Sevilla.

Promoted Tenerife, who have won just once on their travels all season, stay third from bottom, although they are level on points with Malaga above them.

Valencia sealed a place in the Champions League qualifying round after coming from behind to defeat bottom side Xerez 3-1 at the Mestalla later on Tuesday.

Spain international winger Juan Mata scored a brace before setting up David Silva for a third as third-placed Valencia made sure of a top-four finish and moved to within a point of an automatic place in next season's Champions League.

Xerez prop up the table, as they have done for most of the season, lying five points from safety and could be relegated on Wednesday if results go against them.

A rain-soaked night and the mid-week fixture kept some Barcelona fans away for the visit of Tenerife at Camp Nou and the wet surface made passing tricky for both sides.

On 12 minutes Barcelona right-back Dani Alves had the first real opening but chose to pass when shooting seemed the best option and the chance went begging.

Barca got the early goal they craved on 17 minutes with Ibrahimovic heading down an Alves cross and Messi chipping in from close range for his 30th league goal of the campaign.

The hosts should have made it 2-0 on 34 minutes but Maxwell chose to shoot from an acute angle rather than squaring to Ibrahimovic.

The miss was punished six minutes before half-time when captain Puyol produced a rare stray pass to gift possession to Tenerife and Argentine Roman slotted the ball past Valdes.

Bojan restored Barca's lead just after the hour, latching onto a neat pass from the active Alves before finishing coolly into the bottom-left corner.

A lighting counter-attack then released Pedro, who chipped his shot just wide, but on 77 minutes the substitute found the net after racing onto Messi's pass and sliding a shot under the goalkeeper.

In the dying seconds of the game Messi controlled Alves's lofted pass in the penalty area before dinking in to cap an ultimately comfortable win.

Elsewhere, Almeria defeated Villarreal 4-2 to dent the visitors' hopes of qualifying for the Europa League.

Villarreal had Argentine centre-back Mateo Musacchio sent off after just 16 minutes and Almeria took full advantage, racking up a 3-0 lead by half-time.

Villarreal fall to seventh, behind Getafe on goal difference after the Madrid-based side drew 1-1 at home to strugglers Sporting Gijon.

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