Is there any team, midfielder, defender or goalkeeper that can stop the magnificent Lionel Messi these days?

Apparently not.

Messi continued his relentless pursuit of Gerd Mueller's record of goals in a calendar year record by striking two more times in Barcelona's 4-0 La Liga away triumph over Levante on Sunday, even if he wasn't the star of the game.

The Argentine marksman pulled within three goals of Mueller's record of 85, set while he starred for Bayern Munich and the German National Team in 1972.

Messi can tie and even surpass Mueller on Wednesday, when Barca (11-0-1, 34 points) plays at Alaves in the second leg of a round of 16 match in Copa del Rey. A Messi hat-trick against just about any club team on this planet certainly is not out of the question.

Barcelona continued to lead Atletico Madrid by three points and extended its margin to 11 points over archrival Real Madrid, which dropped a 1-0 decision to Real Betis in Sevilla. Benat Etxebarria connected for the lone goal in the 17th minute as he took advantage of a poor clearance and fired past goalkeeper Iker Casillas.

While Messi added to his growing goal total, he wasn't the man of the match. Andres Iniesta, who scored the game-winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final, put his personal matck on the encounter by scoring once and creating the other three Barca goals.

Levante managed to hold Messi and company at bay for the first half, but Messi started the onslaught a minute after the interval when he scored for a 1-0 lead. Five minutes later, the Argentine doubled the advantage and Barca never looked back. Iniesta made it 3-0 in the 56th minute and Cesc Fabregas closed out a stunning 16-minute span in the 62nd minute.

In case you are wondering, Messi has 19 goals in 12 La Liga matches this season and 70 for the year. He also has 12 goals for Argentina.

Barcelona has six games remaining in 2012. Even if Messi scores only once every other game, he will tie Mueller's mark, although at his pace, it would be surprising if he slows down.

Barca's remaining schedule for the year:

* Wednesday -- At Alaves in Copa Del Rey round of 16 second leg

* Saturday, Dec. 1 -- Hosts Athletic Bilbao in La Liga

* Wednesday, Dec. 5 -- Hosts Benfica in UEFA Champions League

* Sunday, Dec. 9 -- At Real Betis in La Liga

* Sunday, Dec. 16 -- hosts Atletico Madrid in La Liga

* Saturday, Dec. 22 -- Plays at Valladolid in La Liga

 

SPAIN

Radamel Falcao, Federico Fazio

Falcao, a Colombian, converted a penalty kick in the 22nd minute two minutes after Argentine defender Fazio tripped Koke in the area to start Atletico Madrid to a 4-0 romp over Sevilla. The hosts also scored off an own goal (Emir Spahic (40th minute), just before halftime (Koke in the 44th minute) and two minutes into stoppage (Miranda). Sevilla did not help itself, losing two men to red cards -- Fazio (20th minute) and Ivan Rakitic (83rd minute).

Javier Saviola, Roque Santa Cruz

Saviola and Cruz scored late goals in Malaga's 4-0 home triumph over Valencia, the team's first win this month. Malaga enjoyed a 1-0 advantage when Saviola, an Argentine veteran, tallied off a Francisco Portillo shot on a deflected shot in the 74th minute. Santa Cruz, a Paraguayan, came on in the 78th minute and scored his fourth goal of the season three minutes later.

ENGLAND

Javier Hernández

Chicharito scored an insurance goal for Manchester United in its 3-1 comeback victory over Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford. The Mexican international striker connected from 12 yards to give the hosts some breathing room in the 72nd minute. The win, ManU’s sixth comeback victory this season, boosted the hosts into the English Premier League lead. Brazilian midfielder Anderson came on as a substitute to spark United. “Ando laid the third goal on a plate for Chicharito but it was a great first touch and a great finish,” manager Sir Alex Ferguson told his team’s website.

Gaston Ramírez

The Uruguayan midfielder scored an insurance goal in the 60th minute to give Southampton a 2-0 win over visiting Newcastle United.

Rafael Benítez, Fernando Torres

Benítez was greeted with jeers at Stamford Bridge in his first game as interim Chelsea manager, a scoreless tie with Manchester City. The Spaniard, who coached at Liverpool, replaced the sacked Roberto Di Matteo, a popular figure who directed the team to the UEFA Champions League crown earlier this year but was fired hours after a CL loss to Juventus Wednesday. Torres, a Spanish international who was benched by Di Matteo against Juve, returned to the starting XI, but failed to score the best chance when he shot over the crossbar in the second half.

"I was just concentrating on the game, I was not paying attention to anything else, just the performance of the players on the pitch," Benítez told reporters. "I can understand [the boos] because of the rivalry in the past but the majority of the fans will understand. I am a professional and I want to do my job, I want to win for the club and I want to win with them."

Jordi Gomez

The Spaniard struck for a second-half hat-trick for Wigan Athletic, which managed to get past Reading, 3-2. After Sean Morrison gave Reading a 1-0 halftime lead, Gomez grabbed the spotlight during an impressive 32-minute scoring run. He put in a rebound of his own shot past goalkeeper Adam Federici in the 58th minute before giving Wigan the lead with a spectacular diving header off a cross from Jean Beausejour in the 68th minute. After Reading equalized in the 80th minute, Gomez came to the rescue, putting home Arouna Koune's feed two minutes into stoppage time.

Bryan Oviedo

Oviedo, a Costa Rican midfielder, set up Everton’s lone goal in its 1-1 draw with Norwich City. The Toffees grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 11th minute. Oviedo, on the left wing, found some run and fed Scotland international midfielder Steven Naismith, who beat goalkeeper Paul Ruddy from seven yards. The hosts, however, could not hold the lead as Sebastien Bassong tallied the equalizer, heading the ball off the crossbar in the 89th minute after a controversial free kick.

ITALY

Mauricio Isla

It turned out to be a tough one for Juventus and the Chilean international defender in their 1-0 loss to A.C. Milan. Isla was ruled to have handled the ball in the penalty area, which was converted into the lone goal of the Serie A encounter. The ball appeared to have hit the outstretched arm of Isla off an Antonio Nocerino header. Replays showed the ball hit Isla's body. AC was awarded a penalty kick and Brazilian Robino converted past goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon in the 31st minute.

Juan Guillermo Cuadrado, Gonzalo Rodríguez

Both men played key roles for Fiorentina in its 2-2 draw with Torino. Torino's Danilo D'Ambrosio fouled Cuadrado, a Colombian, in the penalty area, allowing Rodríguez, an Argentine, to convert a penalty kick in the 75th minute to tie the match at 1-1. After Torino grabbed the lead again, Cuadrado fed sub Mounir El Hamdaoui for the 84th-minute equalizer.

FRANCE

Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore

After coming close to scoring earlier in the game, the Argentinean set up Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic's second goal with a minute remaining in Paris Saint-Germain's 4-0 rout of Troyes, Ibrahimovic tapped home Lavezzi's cross for his 12th goal this season. Pastore, another Argentinean, endured another sub-par match and was replaced at halftime.

Guillermo Ochoa

Ochoa made three saves and blocked another shot to help preserve AC Ajaccio’s 1-1 draw with AS Nancy Lorraine in Ligue 1. Djamel Bakar scored in the eighth minute past the Mexican international to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. Ajaccio, however, equalized in the 75th minute on Adrian Mutu’s penalty kick to extend Nancy’s winless streak to 14 games in all competitions.

GERMANY

Javi Martinez

The Spaniard jump-started Bayern Munich's 5-0 home win over Hanover 96, scoring in the third minute.

BRAZIL

Marcos Gonzalez

The Chilean international scored in the 87th minute to lift Flamengo into a 1-1 tie with rival Vasco da Gama.

PORTUGAL

James Rodríguez, Jackson Martinez

It was better late than never for this Colombian dynamic duo in defending champion Porto's 2-0 victory at third-place Braga. Rodríguez scored in the 90th minute and Martinez added an insurance goal three minutes into added time as Porto remained tied for first with Benfica.

Oscar Cardozo

Cardozo, a Paraguayan, converted a penalty kick in the 26th minute as Benfica blanked Olhanense, 2-0, at home.

TOP DEFENDERS

Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Sergio Ramos

Twenty defenders have been shortlisted for the FIFA FIFPro World XI 2012 team. The impressive list included Alba (Spain, Barcelona), Mascherano (Argentina, Barcelona), Pique (Spain, Barcelona), Puyol (Spain, Barcelona) and Ramos (Spain, Real Madrid).

Michael Lewis, who has covered international soccer for more than three decades, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.

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