By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) - World Player of the Year Lionel Messi netted a first-half hat-trick as Barcelona extended their winning start to their La Liga title defence with an action-packed 3-2 win at Valencia on Sunday.
A matter of hours before they sealed the purchase of Wales winger Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid racked up a maximum nine points when they beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1 at the Bernabeu, while Atletico Madrid also made it three wins in three with a 2-1 success at Real Sociedad.
Barca were cruising in an entertaining contest at the Mestalla after Messi struck in the 10th and 39th minutes from Cesc Fabregas assists before Neymar set the Argentine up for his third in the 41st.
Valencia stormed back with two goals from Helder Postiga on the stroke of halftime, including an acrobatic volley, Messi uncharacteristically squandered three golden opportunities late on and goalkeeper Victor Valdes saved Barca with a fingertip save onto the post from an 86th-minute Jonas effort.
"We let them back into the game but we were strong enough at the end to hold on for the win," Barca playmaker Andres Iniesta said in an interview with television broadcaster Canal Plus.
"This is a very tough stadium to play at, with the atmosphere and the intensity with which they play," added the Spain international.
"It's about continuing to improve, we are just at the start of the season.
"It's logical that we need to aim higher and the sooner we can find our optimum level and stay there for an extended time the better."
Messi missed last weekend's 1-0 win at Malaga with a bruised thigh and although he fluffed those late chances on Sunday he looked close to his scintillating best.
It was the third treble before halftime of his career and at the age of only 26 he is now the sixth highest scorer in La Liga with 220 goals, surpassing Quini's 219 and closing in on the record of 251 held by Telmo Zarra.
In-form playmaker Isco earlier struck twice and Cristiano Ronaldo netted his first goal of the campaign to give Luka Modric-inspired Real victory over Bilbao.
The comfortable win in an unusual midday kickoff at the Bernabeu extended Real's dominance of the Basques and they have put 22 goals past them in their last four league meetings in the Spanish capital.
Their success suggested the Ancelotti's players have not been distracted by the drawn-out saga over Bale's transfer.
Spurs said Real had agreed to pay a record 100 million euros for the 24-year-old, who has agreed a six-year contract and will be presented on Monday after a medical.
After a subdued start at their giant, sun-drenched arena, Karim Benzema dinked a pass through to Isco in the 26th minute and the Spain playmaker, who joined from Malaga in the close season, drilled a shot past Bilbao goalkeeper Iago Herrerin.
Ronaldo powered home a header from Angel Di Maria's free kick moments before halftime for his 202nd goal in 202 official games for Real and his 11th against Bilbao, putting him on a par with the club's former strikers Raul and Hugo Sanchez.
Bilbao threatened a comeback on a couple of occasions before Isco picked up another assist from Benzema, again whistled by the home crowd after fluffing a number of chances, and the 21-year-old found the net with a sublime 72nd-minute strike.
Ibai Gomez made the scoreline slightly more respectable for the visitors, who have now conceded 22 goals in their last five league visits to the Bernabeu, when he clipped the ball past Diego Lopez in the 79th minute after neat work on the right from fellow substitute Oscar de Marcos.
"Things are going well for me," Isco said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
"We have only just started the season and three wins in three is the right path to follow to make it a good year for us," he added.
"We want to keep improving little by little and aspire to win all the competitions we are taking part in."
Croatian Modric, who started alongside Germany's Sami Khedira in central midfield, had an excellent game and the crowd chanted his name midway through the second half when he snuffed out a Bilbao attack.
Modric has not always convinced the Real faithful since joining from Spurs but former Real forward Emilio Butragueno, now a club director, said he had turned in a "very complete performance in every sense".
"He is an intelligent player capable of adapting to different positions and functions," Butragueno told Canal Plus.
David Villa fired Atletico ahead in the 27th minute at Sociedad's Anoeta stadium and set up Spain team mate Koke to make it 2-0 in the 57th before Xabi Prieto pulled a goal back for the Basque side with just over 20 minutes left.
Atletico's Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois denied Sociedad's an equaliser with a stunning reflex save in the 89th minute and another fine stop in the first minute of added time.
Promoted Villarreal's impressive 3-0 win at Osasuna on Saturday means they also have nine points and suggested the team known as "yellow submarine" are unlikely to surrender their top flight status again this term.
- Sports & Recreation
- Lionel Messi
- Real Madrid
- La Liga
- Real Sociedad
- Athletic Bilbao
- Atletico Madrid
- Canal Plus