After his team finished the first half of Spain's La Liga season virtually unblemished, coach Tito Vilanova praised Barcelona, but warned against complacency.
Barca completed the first half of the season with an amazing 55 out of a possible 57 points behind a 3-1 triumph over Malaga as Lionel Messi had a hand, or rather a foot, in all of the goals.
The Spanish powerhouse has registered an 18-0-1 mark -- a league-record -- as the Spanish powerhouse enjoys an 11-point advantage over second-place Athletic Madrid and an 18-point lead over rival Real Madrid. The team also has scored at least one goal for 37 successive matches, another La Liga mark.
“The players are very good. We’re coming off of four successful years and it’s a good thing that they know the concepts of the system. Besides, the players are eager to continue winning," Vilanova said.
But then he reminded reporters: “We are not invincible. Everything we’ve achieved up until now is thanks to the effort we’ve put in and our eagerness to win. The day we don’t play at a high level is the day we lose. Therefore, it’s about maintaining our form.”
Vilanova admitted that Barca's 11-point lead was "an unthinkable advantage at the start of any year, but we have to keep on going. We cannot stop here.”
He reminded reporters that “La Liga title hasn’t been won. We still have the whole second half of the season.”
Messi did not set any records but in his first game since winning FIFA's player of the year for the fourth consecutive time, the Argentine mega-star lived up to his reputation and name. He scored the first goal and set up the other two in the encounter against the team with the most difficult defense in the league.
Messi started things off when he intercepted a poor back pass from Ignacio Camacho and beat goalkeeper Willy Caballero as he scored in his ninth consecutive match with his 28th league goal in the 27th minute. He is one game shy of the league record last reached by former Barca Brazilian star Ronaldo in the 1997-98 season.
The Colombian master put home a penalty kick in the 38th minute for an insurance goal in Athletic Madrid's 2-0 home win over Real Zaragoza. Brazilian Tiago gave the hosts the lead seven minutes prior. Falcao has converted seven penalties this season to boost him to 18 goals, second only to Messi.
Without the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Antonio Adan, inconsistent 10-man Real Madrid managed a scoreless draw with last-place Osasuna. It did not help Real that Brazilian midfielder Kaka was red carded only 19 minutes after entering the game as a sub. Casillas, the Spanish international goalkeeper who had been benched by the meteoric coach Jose Mourinho for two games, recorded a clean sheet with Adan out. The tie left the struggling side 15 points behind Barcelona, which played on Sunday.
The Mexican international forward struck again for Real Sociedad in its 1-1 draw with struggling Deportivo la Coruna. Vela, who transferred from Arsenal (England) to Real in the off-season, scored his eighth goal of the season in the 45th minute. The 23-year-old Mexican standout ran toward the ball, cut inside the penalty area and launched a left-footed effort inside the far post as he found the back of the net for the sixth time in his past eight games.
Joel Campbell, Ruben Castro
Campbell, a Costa Rican international on loan from Arsenal, scored the first goal in Real Betis' 2-0 home victory over Levante. Spaniard Castro set up Campbell off a seventh-minute counterattack before adding one of his own in the 63rd-minute to move his team within three points of Real.
The Argentine was brought down just outside the penalty area, but the linesman signaled the foul was inside as Rayo Vallecano was awarded a penalty kick in the 65th minute. Rayo captain Piti converted for the visitors' second goal in a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilboa.
Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero
Tevez wound up in the middle of both Manchester City goals in its 2-0 win at Arsenal. After a quick free kick, the Argentinean fed England international James Milner, who gave the visitors the lead in the 21st minute. After the Arsenal goalkeeper denied Tevez's lose-range attempt, Edin Dezko slotted home the ball in the 32nd minute.
Aguero, another Argentine who is City's top scorer (10 goals), missed the game with a hamstring injury, and he is expected to be sidelined for another week, said manager Roberto Mancini, who is hopeful his star will be available for Fulham this weekend.
Suarez, who entered the match with 15 English Premier League goals, could not find the back of the net for Liverpool in its 2-1 away loss at Manchester United. The Uruguayan was booed and jeered by the Old Trafford faithful, although he probably made it a lot worse by shaking the hands of Frenchman Patrice Evra prior to the match. Suarez failed to do that last season in Manchester after he served an eight-match suspension for racially abusing Evra.
Bryan Ruiz, Maynor Figueroa, Roger Espinoza, Franco Di Santo
Barbados international Emmerson Boyce cleared Ruiz's 11th-hour shot off the goal line to help Wigan Athletic earn a 1-1 draw with Fulham. With Wigan enjoying the upper hand late in the game, Boyce produced his save on the Costa Rican international. Honduran Figueroa started for Wigan, but former Sporting Kansas City standout midfielder Roger Espinoza, another Honduran who recently joined the EPL side on a transfer, did not dress for the match. Di Santo, an Argentine, equalized with a clinical finish in the 71st minute.
Rodrigo Palacio, Fredy Guarin
An Argentine and a Colombian combined to lift Inter Milan to a 2-0 win over visiting Pescara. Palacio, an Argentinean, struck in the 29th minute and Guarin increased the advantage to two goals in the 53rd.
The Colombian put the finishing touches of Udinese's 3-1 home triumph over Fiorentina with a 67th-minute goal after Antonio Di Natale struck for a brace.
Gomez, an Argentine, gave Catania gave all the scoring it needed in the 61st minute in a 1-0 victory over AS Roma.
The Spaniard was red carded in the 83rd minute for Atalanta, after Lazio did all its damage in a 3-0 home win.
The Mexican international goalkeeper did not just stand on his head to deny 10-man Paris Saint-Germain any goals. Ochoa used his head to register a clean sheet against the French Ligue 1 powerhouse for the first time since August as AC Ajaccio earned a scoreless draw. The tie snapped PSG’s four-game winning streak. Ochoa realized he was going to have a busy game in the ninth minute as Thiago Motta hit the post before he dived to stop a shot from Blaise Matuidi. The Mexican was forced to pull off an acrobatic save on Brazilian defender Alex in the 61st minute. Eight minutes later, Ochoa was at it again, denying Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose shot rebounded off the Mexican’s head.
Dario Cvitanich, Renato Civelli
Both Argentines left their marks in Nice's 5-0 trouncing of Valenciennes. Cvitanich struck for his 11th and 12th goals of the season (45th and 79th minutes) and assisted on another. Civelli scored in the 59th minute.
Nicolas Gaitan, Jackson Martinez
It was a wild start in the 2-2 draw between Benfica and Porto as all goals were scored in the opening 20 minutes. Martinez, a Colombian had taken advantage of a mistake by goalkeeper Artur to give Porto the lead, but Gaitan, an Argentinean midfielder, equalized, scoring off a loose ball in the penalty area.
Najar, a Honduran midfielder on loan from D.C. United, made a strong debut for Anderlecht in its 4-2 friendly win over Heracles (the Netherlands).
The Argentine scored in the 42nd minute for Melbourne Victory, which could not hold the lead and settled for a 1-1 draw with the Central Coast Mariners.
Oribe Peralta, Oswaldo Sanchez
Olympic hero Peralta recorded a brace to boost Santos Laguna a 2-0 home win over Guadalajara in the Mexican Clausura. Peralta, who scored twice for El Tri in its 2-1 win over Brazil in the Olympic gold-medal match, struck in the 36th and 73rd minutes. Sanchez, a former Mexican international goalkeeper, saved a penalty kick by Guadalajara's Luis Perez four minutes into stoppage time.
The former Mexican international converted a penalty kick in the 35th minute to start Atlas to a 2-0 home victory over Pachuca.
Cardozo, an Argentine midfielder, found the back of the net in the seventh minute for the lone goal in Monterrey's 1-0 home win over Monarcas.
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He is in Columbus to cover Sunday’s game, and can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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