Lionel Messi Betis vs Barcelona 2018-19Getty Images

Betis fans bow down as Messi drives Barcelona towards Liga title

Lionel Messi sprinkled his genius thick and heavy over the Benito Villamarin’s pitch on Sunday, but his final contribution was transcendent.

The Argentine striker, La Liga’s top goalscorer, the best player in the world, and yes, in the history of football, completed his hat-trick with a quite astonishing lob to help Barcelona complete a 4-1 win at Real Betis.

Messi’s goals sent Barcelona 10 points clear of second place Atletico Madrid, taking a decisive step towards the title, but for those watching, the eighth wonder of the world was more important, more significant than the big picture.

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Real Betis fans proved that as they rose to give Messi a standing ovation, even as their team were thrashed.

"I don’t remember a night like this (being applauded by rival supporters), I’m really grateful for the way the fans responded," said Messi, having completed his 33rd league hat-trick. "I was just lucky that they went in and that we got the three points."

When it comes to talking the Barcelona captain can be modest to a fault, but his magical display spoke for itself.

Even as Barcelona recorded just 43.9 per cent possession, their lowest in a league game since the 2004-05 season, it didn’t matter as Ernesto Valverde’s tactics worked - and so did their cheat code, Messi.

Valverde opted for a new set-up and a new line-up. Philippe Coutinho was dropped for Arturo Vidal and Barcelona switched from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield.

Although the Brazilian’s display against Lyon in the Champions League on Wednesday was an improvement on his recent form, Valverde didn’t believe Coutinho was ready for a game of this intensity. And he was right.

Instead the midfield diamond helped Barcelona to tussle with Betis in midfield, and even if at times the Catalans were losing that battle, having four central players at least disrupted the hosts’s game at the Benito Villamarin.

Vidal, playing behind strike duo Messi and Suarez, was a disruptive, combative presence, just as was asked of him by Valverde.

It was the Chilean who won the free-kick which Messi converted to break the deadlock after 18 minutes, a sumptuous effort into the top left corner, that left Betis goalkeeper Pau Lopez with no chance.

The stopper had been involved in an unsavoury incident involving Messi while at Espanyol, stamping on the Argentine, and Messi’s free-kick proved revenge was a dish best served cold. 

Betis caused problems for Barcelona but the visitors’ pressing ensured Quique Setien’s side were never comfortable either, in a match which was tense and watchable.

Lionel Messi Barcelona 2018-19Getty Images

Messi netted his second just before the break, finishing with a flick after reaching Suarez’s brilliant back-heeled through-ball.

It was a moment of pure genius from Suarez, although as usual the Uruguayan mixed the good with the bad and the ugly.

The forward should have scored himself in the first half, with Messi teeing him up nicely, but his left-foot shot was weak and Lopez denied him.

In the second half he rounded the keeper but his cross-shot was off target, before being sent through again but firing wide.

It was a poor miss and Barcelona fans rolled their eyes, now well used to the forward missing great chances - and scoring the hard ones.

Almost immediately he made amends though, with a slalom run through Betis’s defence, leaving former Barca centre-back Marc Bartra on the floor, wishing it would swallow him, before tucking home.

It was his 128th goal in La Liga for Barca, equalling the record for a Uruguayan in the division - former Atletico striker Diego Forlan’s tally.

Suarez has 18 in La Liga this season, more than anyone in the top flight with one notable exception, his neighbour, friend and strike-partner.

Messi, on 29 league goals, continued to run the show in the second half and the Betis fans were able to appreciate another remarkable display from the best player in the history of the sport.

His chip at the end was the catalyst for home supporters to hail him and, never knowing when enough is enough, Messi hit the post at the death too, denied his fourth by a lick of paint.

With 10 games to go Barcelona are closing in on the title. The race will be over sooner, rather than later, but the memories Messi leaves painted across Spanish stadiums are indelible.