Barcelona, Feb 24 (efe-epa).- Lionel Messi had a brace Wednesday to lead Barcelona 3-0 over Elche and position the Catalan club within striking distance of LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid and second-place Real Madrid.
The Argentine superstar boosted his goals for the season to 18, the most in LaLiga, as the Blaugrana improved to 50 points, 2 behind the Blancos and 5 less than Atleti, who have a game in hand on both of the teams chasing them.
Barça produced a forgettable first half against 19th-place Elche.
Only Francisco Trincao shined in the opening 45 minutes for the hosts, who appeared to be suffering a hangover from last week’s Champions League defeat to Paris Saint-Germain and their subsequent draw with Cadiz in domestic play.
Trincao forced two saves – one of them outstanding – from Elche goalkeeper Edgar Badia, while Lucas Boye sent the ball over the cross-bar on the only clear chance for the visitors.
Ronald Koeman made what turned out to be a crucial substitution at the start of the second half, replacing an ineffective Miralem Pjanic with Ousmane Dembele, and the hosts took the lead in the 48th minute thanks to Messi, with an assist from Martin Braithwaite.
In the 69th minute, it was the turn of Frenkie de Jong to set up a goal for the captain. The Dutchman cut a swath through Elche and got the ball to Messi, who made it 2-0.
The third goal came just four minutes later, as Messi got a cross to Braithwaite and the Dane relayed the ball to Jordi Alba, who nudged it across the line.
Koeman swapped Braithwaite for Antoine Griezmann for the final stretch and the France international threatened in the 84th minute, but his shot ended up in the side netting. EFE