By ADAM TROXTELL
It might be the most important weekend in Barcelona’s season.
A 6-1 rout of Rayo Vallecano took the Blaugrana above rivals Real Madrid into first place in the Spanish Primera Division on Sunday. More on the title race will be revealed in the highly anticipated El Clasico matchup in a few weeks, but for now Barcelona is surpassing Real in more ways than one.
Lionel Messi scored a hat-trick in the win against Rayo, his 24th in his career to pass Cristiano Ronaldo’s tally of triples. Messi and Ronaldo now both sit with 30 goals each to lead all scorers in the La Liga season.
Barcelona leapt at the opportunity to take first place after a shock result yesterday, when Real fell 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao. The Catalan side was immediately locked in, opening the scoring against Rayo in just the sixth minute when Xavi played through Luis Suarez.
The Uruguayan found the net twice, also ending the game when he was played through on goal again by Messi. Suarez now has seven La Liga goals, but his Argentine teammate garnered most of the attention.
Messi’s hat-trick came in just 11 minutes, the fastest of his career. It began with a penalty in the 56th minute, followed seven minutes later by his second off of a rebound.
The best was saved for last, with Pedro finding Messi in the box before he faked a shot, forced Cristian Alvarez to commit in the Rayo goal, and dispatched the ball into an open net. In all, Barcelona fired 14 shots at Alvarez in a rampant display that made a real statement.
In England, Liverpool was unable to get past Blackburn and will now head to a replay of their FA Cup quarterfinal. Udinese edged Torino in Serie A action, and Saint Etienne got its first French league win in nearly two months.
Here are more recaps from the action across Europe’s top leagues:
ENGLISH FA CUP
The battle between Liverpool and Blackburn for a semifinal spot will go to round two.
The Reds worked their way to dominance in a 0-0 draw at Anfield. Liverpool’s best chance to go through came in the second-half, when substitute Kolo Toure hit the post with a header from a free kick opportunity.
That sparked the Reds to life in the second half, but there was no beating Blackburn’s Simon Eastwood in goal. The only time a ball got past him and the defense was in the first half when Toure put the ball in off a free kick, but an offside call erased the effort.
It took a while for the match to get going after Martin Skrtel suffered a significant injury in the opening minutes. The Slovakian was challenging Blackburn striker Rudy Gestede for a ball in the air, and he spent a long time on the ground as medical staff prepared to stretcher him off.
Blackburn’s best chance came just after halftime when Alex Baptiste’s powerfully headed shot was blocked by Simon Mingolet.
FC Koln took a big step away from the relegation zone by beating Frankfurt, 4-2, in the early Sunday game.
Two goals in three minutes from Yuya Osako and Anthony Ujah provided Koln with the gap necessary to climb from 14th to 11th place, six points away from the relegation places. Frankfurt’s Alexander Meier returned to the top of the Bundesliga scoring chart by netting both of his club’s goals.
Deyverson opened the scoring for Koln in the 28th minute before Meier scored his 17th goal of the season to pull Frankfurt level again. Koln went ahead for good when Marcel Risse scored in the 72nd minute, and Meier’s late penalty was the only answer for Frankfurt.
Bayer Leverkusen kept up in the race for Champions League spots with a 3-0 win against Paderborn. Son Heung-min scored twice in six minutes to keep Leverkusen just two points behind second-place Borussia M’gladbach.
ITALIAN SERIE A
Udinese brought Torino’s run of games without defeat to an end, and in the process boosted their own form.
The Turin club suffered its first loss in 12 league games in a 3-2 defeat. The Bianconeri had failed to win in their last four games in a sputtering run that has seen them go from European spot contenders to mid-table team.
Molla Wague’s 49th minute strike provided them with the edge. Torino started on top with Fabio Quagliarella scoring in the 16th minute.
But two minutes later, it was another veteran, Antonio Di Natale, who had Udinese level. Panagiotis Kone gave them the lead in the 26th minute before Wague made it 3-1.
A 69th minute Torino goal from Marco Benassi made for an interesting final 20 minutes, but the club’s first loss in Serie A since the end of November was already set in stone.
There was little scoring elsewhere in Italy, with only Empoli and Genoa finding the net in a 1-1 draw.
Here are more results from Italy:
Cesena 0, Palermo 0
Chievo Verona 0, Roma 0
Empoli 1, Genoa 1
Parma 0, Atalanta 0
Udinese 3, Torino 2
SPANISH PRIMERA DIVISION
Real Sociedad bounced back from last week’s humbling by Valencia with a win against 10th place Espanyol.
Sergio Canales struck in the 38th minute for Sociedad for the difference maker in an otherwise even contest. Both teams put five shots on target and split possession.
FRENCH LIGUE 1
With a first league win since Jan. 10, Saint Etienne can still battle away for a Europa League spot.
Second half goals from Yohan Mollo and Max-Alain Gradel provided Saint Etienne with a 2-0 win at home against strugglers Lorient. While it was a fairly dominant performance, the hosts will want a better return for their effort next time out.
Out of 15 total shots, only four managed to hit the target for Saint Etienne.
Elsewhere, Lille won a mid-table battle against Guingamp, 1-0, with Nolan Roux scoring the crucial goal just after halftime.