With Lionel Messi in top form, Barcelona looks ready to erase its Champions League frustrations.
Messi made sure Barcelona backed up consecutive wins over Real Madrid by scoring one goal and setting up another to help beat the relegation-threatened Rayo Vallecano 3-1 and maintain its comfortable lead of the Spanish league on Saturday.
That means Barcelona will host French side Lyon in the Champions League on Wednesday after having taken major steps toward securing a domestic double over the past two weeks.
Barcelona will need a win over Lyon to advance after being held to 0-0 in the opening leg of their round-of-16 tie.
Barcelona eliminated Madrid from the Copa del Rey semifinals and crushed its fierce rival’s best chance to get back in the Liga title fight with two wins at the Santiago Bernabeu last week.
But as Messi said at the start of the campaign, his team’s No. 1 objective is to win another European title. Barcelona hasn’t gotten past the Champions League quarterfinals since its last title in 2015, and it has been waiting all year to make up for a stunning 3-0 loss at Roma last season.
“We have all three titles in our heads,” said Gerard Pique, who equalized against Rayo before halftime from a pass by Messi.
“Wednesday’s match is a final,” Pique added. “If you win, you advance, if you lose or draw, you are out. All of our focus is now on Wednesday’s game.”
MESSI LEADS COMEBACK
The win over Rayo kept Barcelona seven points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid, which beat Leganes 1-0. Madrid was15 points adrift before visiting Valladolid on Sunday.
Raul de Tomas put Rayo ahead in the 25th minute on a counterattack. The striker deftly cut along the edge of the area to open a shooting angle around Pique and Nelson Semedo before scoring his 11th league goal of the season.
Messi cued Barcelona’s response in the 38th when he sent a free kick toward the near post for Pique to head in. Messi gave Barcelona the lead in the 51st from the penalty spot after Semedo was fouled while trying to dribble past Jordi Amat.
Luis Suarez tapped in a pass from substitute Ivan Rakitic to put the result beyond doubt with eight minutes remaining.
Rayo stayed in second-to-last place after a sixth consecutive loss.
Messi leads La Liga in goals and assists. He has scored 26 times and made 12 direct passes for teammates to score through 27 rounds.
READY FOR JUVE
Atletico rested regular starters ahead of its Champions League match at Juventus on Tuesday, when it will look to defend a 2-0 first-leg win.
Substitute Saul Niguez scored the sole goal against Leganes in the 50th, when he finished off the rebound of his own penalty kick that was initially saved by goalkeeper Andriy Lunin.
“I saw in my run-up that (Lunin) was anticipating my shot, but I was fortunate to get the rebound,” Niguez said. “(Against Juventus) it will be a difficult game. We will enjoy this win and then prepare for it.”
Coach Diego Simeone didn’t start first-choice players Niguez, Alvaro Morata, Thomas Lemar and Juanfran Torres, while Diego Godin and Jorge “Koke” Resurreccion both served suspensions. Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Lucas Hernandez were out injured.
Niguez went on at halftime to substitute Andres Solano, who made his first-team debut, and broke the deadlock after Angel Correa was tripped inside the area by Leganes’ Kenneth Omeruo.
Both Thomas Partey and Thomas Lemar hit the woodwork for Atletico in the second half.
Getafe forward Jaime Mata scored his 12th and 13th goals of the season to lead a 2-1 fight back over bottom side Huesca to strengthen its hold on fourth place and the last Champions League berth. Getafe is only three points behind Madrid in third.
Huesca coach Francisco Rodriguez was sent off in stoppage time for arguing with the referee.
Fifth-place Alaves was held by Eibar at home to 1-1.