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Iniesta helps Barcelona beat Levante, extend gap on Madrid

Associated Press

11/25/2012 5:57:17 PM

BARCELONA, Spain -- Andres Iniesta scored one goal and created three more to guide Barcelona to a 4-0 win at Levante on Sunday as Tito Vilanova's team took a major step toward reclaiming the Spanish league title.

Lionel Messi was the recipient of two of Iniesta's assists to score in the 47th and 52nd minutes. Iniesta himself netted five minutes later with a blast off the crossbar before setting up Cesc Fabregas in the 63rd at Ciutat de Valencia stadium.

Real Madrid's loss at Real Betis the day before gave Barcelona the chance to extend its lead over the defending champions to 11 points, and while Levante held on for 45 minutes, Iniesta quickly turned a tightly fought game into a rout after the break.

Barcelona has 12 wins and a draw to equal Madrid's start from the 1991-92 season as the best ever in Spain's top league.

And even though the title race is not even to its halfway point, no team has won the competition after falling nine or more points behind.

"The way forward is to keep earning points and doing things well," Iniesta said. "We have to continue believing and growing as a team."

Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, extended its best club start with a 4-0 win over nine-man Sevilla to remain three points behind the pacesetters.

Atletico visits third-place Madrid next week with an eight-point lead over its crosstown rival.

For Iniesta, Atletico is now Barcelona's main rival with Madrid falling away.

"Atletico is playing very well and they are a clear candidate for the title," Iniesta said.

While Iniesta proved as incisive as ever, Messi approached yet another scoring milestone.

Messi's 11th multi-goal game of this campaign gave the Argentina forward 82 goals in 2012, just three shy of the single-year record set by Gerd Mueller for Bayern Munich and Germany in 1972.

As expected, Levante knew better than to dispute Barcelona's intent to dominate possession and was happy to stay true to its counterattacking style that had led it to fourth place in the standings.

When Dani Alves was replaced by Martin Montoya in the 14th because of an apparent leg injury, all of Barcelona's 11 players on the pitch had come from its football academy.

Iniesta made several incursions into the hosts' area early on, but Levante repelled the attacks and striker Obafemi Martins barely missed with a header before halftime.

Messi broke through on his first touch in the second half when Iniesta slid a ball to the streaking forward to flip over onrushing goalkeeper Gustavo Munua.

"Making a quick pass on the first goal was key," Iniesta said. "It opened up spaces."

Iniesta then dribbled by his marker to the end line before making a no-look pass back to Messi, who casually tucked the ball into the net to take his league-leading tally to 19 goals.

It was then Iniesta's turn to get his goal as the Spain international dribbled along the edge of the box before unleashing an unstoppable strike that grazed the woodwork.

Fabregas sealed Barcelona's whirlwind performance by linking up with Iniesta before rounding Munua with one touch and rolling the ball home.

"Iniesta is smart, he interprets the game very well," said Vilanova. "I don't ask him to play as a winger, rather I give him liberty to move."

Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes seized his only chance to shine three minutes from time when he blocked Jose Barkero's penalty before springing to his feet to also save the rebound.

At Vicente Calderon stadium, Diego Simeone's Atletico thrashed visiting Sevilla after Fazio Federico was red carded for fouling Jorge "Koke" Resurrecion in the area.

Atletico striker Radamel Falcao converted the resulting penalty in the 22nd for his 11th league goal.

An own goal by Sevilla's Emir Spahic in the 40th and Koke's strike in the 43rd put the result beyond doubt. Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic was sent off in the 82nd before Miranda capped Atletico's win in added time.

Elsewhere, Getafe won 2-0 at last-place Espanyol, while Athletic Bilbao was held to a 1-1 home draw by Deportivo La Coruna.