BARCELONA

Messi magic keeps coming at the right time for Barcelona

Messi celebra un gol ante el Villarreal

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The Argentina forward has banged in nine goals in his last five games to pass the 40-mark for a 10th consecutive season and keep his side in the hunt for a treble.

Leo Messi has hit his finest form at the perfect time for Barcelona as the business end of the season arrives. The Argentina captain has scored nine times in his last five appearances, his best run of the campaign to date, with the last three all coming from direct free kicks, a remarkable accuracy rate.

Messi’s hat-trick against Betis drew plaudits worldwide - and applause from the Villamarín - as one of the best he has ever chalked up but the forward’s form shows no sign of dipping and his cameo off the bench against Villarreal again proved decisive, his free kick pulling Barça back into the game with seconds on the clock before Luis Suárez added the coup de grace deep in stoppage time.

Messi has now passed the 40-goal mark for a 10th consecutive season, scoring 32 in LaLiga, eight in the Champions League and two in the Copa del Rey. He is on course for a third consecutive European Golden Shoe and his sixth overall, while he and Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski lead the way in the Champions League.

Atlético, Manchester United up next for Messi

Messi’s run in front of goal over Barça’s past five fixtures accounts for 21 percent of his total for the season and from his side’s point of view he couldn’t be in better shape at a better time, the fruit partly of Ernesto Valverde’s management of his star player and Messi’s limited involvement with the Argentina national team since the World Cup.

The 4-4 draw at La Cerámica allowed Atlético to shave two points off Barça’s lead and the top two in LaLiga meet on Saturday in Camp Nou in what could prove to be a decisive fixture in the title race. An Atlético win would cut the deficit to five points with eight games to play while a Barça triumph would practically seal another league for Valverde’s side, sending the reigning champions 11 points clear with 21 left to contest.

After that, Barça play Manchester United, who have lost three of their last four games, for a place in the Champions League semi-finals. With Messi in this form, the Premier League side will have their work cut out at Old Trafford on 10 April.