MADRID - FC Barcelona coach Luis Enrique enjoyed a happy return to his hometown and the club where he began his career as his side beat Sporting Gijon 3-1 to open
|Barcelona's Lionel Messi reacts during match. [Photo/Agencies]|
Barca had the 'game in hand' after playing the World Club Championship in December and Wednesday's game mean they have played the same number of games as everyone else in the league with this win giving them a 6-point lead over second place Atletico Madrid and seven over Real Madrid.
The game began with Barcelona moving the ball around the pitch looking for gaps in a well-organized and hard-working home side, but it was not until the 20th minute that Barca were able to create their first chance as Luis Suarez's effort was saved by 'Pichu' Cuellar in the Sporting goal.
That was the sign for the game to spring to life as Messi slotted home a left foot shot from outside of the penalty area to give the league leaders the lead in the 25th minute with the 300th league goal of his incredible career.
It looked as if Barca had done the hard-work in getting ahead, but some poor defending just two minutes later saw a Sporting break finished by Carlos Castro, who arrived unmarked at the far post.
Three minutes later in a crazy 10 minute spell, Messi restored Barca's lead from close range after being set up by Suarez and three minutes later Sporting had a let off as Cuellar first denied Messi's hat-trick and then watched as Neymar hit the rebound against the crossbar as the home side clung on until halftime.
The second half began like the first and although Sporting appealed for a penalty when Alen Halilovic, on loan from Barca, fell in the visitors' area, replays showed the referee was right in waving play on.
The referee had no doubts on the hour when Cuellar bundled over Neymar in the Sporting area, but the keeper then saved Suarez's spot kick, although Suarez netted Barca's third after working space and curling in a left foot shot just six minutes later to kill off the game.