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Messi hat trick puts Barca in Liga lead as Madrid draws

(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

By JOSEPH WILSON

Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona has quickly put an agonizing August behind it and taken the early lead of the Spanish league.

Lionel Messi scored a hat trick to lead its 5-0 win over crosstown rival Espanyol on Saturday, making it the only side so far to win its first three games in La Liga.

Real Madrid fell four points adrift and sits in sixth place after a second consecutive draw at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, 1-1 with newly promoted Levante.

Barcelona entered the league campaign reeling from the unwanted departure of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain last month and a stinging loss to Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup by the aggregate score of 5-1.

But new coach Ernesto Valverde has refocused his players on the league, and Messi has done the rest by scoring five goals to lead the competition.

"We are at the start of the season and the differences are not significant, but it sure is better to be ahead than behind," Valverde said.

Even better for its long-term prospects than the lopsided win, the player who Barcelona signed to help fill the hole left by Neymar had a positive debut.

France forward Ousmane Dembele went on as a second-half substitute and set up Luis Suarez to complete the demolition of Espanyol.

The 20-year-old Dembele produced the kind of speed Barcelona wanted from him when he raced down the right flank to reach a long pass and then deliver a precise low cross for Suarez to score.

"I saw Dembele showing attitude, daring to do things," Valverde said. "We have big expectations for him. It is about helping him come along."

Gerard Pique also scored for Barcelona, which hosts Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Levante was a match to forget for Zinedine Zidane.

Nothing went right: His lineup changes hurt his side; Karim Benzema injured a muscle in his right leg; and Marcelo will miss next week's match at Real Sociedad after receiving a direct red for kicking Jefferson Lerma.

And then there was Gareth Bale. Instead of redeeming himself with a fan base critical of his lack of goals, he missed four clear chances to be the hero after he replaced the injured Benzema in the first half.

Newly promoted Levante caught Madrid with its guard down in the 12th minute on a routine throw-in executed by Ivan Lopez, which concluded in a goal by another teammate also named Ivan Lopez.

One Lopez directed the throw-in to the other Lopez, who slipped behind Dani Carvajal near the goal, controlled the ball and poked it past goalkeeper Kiko Casilla.

Lucas Vazquez got the equalizer 10 minutes later, when he tapped in the rebound after Levante goalkeeper Raul Fernandez saved Sergio Ramos' header. That extended Madrid's run to 71 consecutive games scoring at least once.

"We can't be happy, above all with our first half," Zidane said. "We have to go out stronger and score first. We are scoring few goals given the number of chances we create."

Sevilla warmed up for its Champions League match at Liverpool on Wednesday by easing past Eibar 3-0.

Eibar's Ivan Alejo was carried off in a stretcher in the first half after his left knee buckled under him.

Atletico Madrid drew at Valencia 0-0 in a dull match that kept both sides undefeated.

Updated September 9, 2017

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