Barcelona: Barcelona ensured that they suffered no hangover from their week from hell with a resounding 7-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano at the Campo de Futbol de Vallecas on Sunday.
It has been a harrowing eight days for the Catalans, who saw their Primera Division and Champions League hopes eliminated by Real Madrid and Chelsea, not to mention the announcement of coach Pep Guardiola's departure at the end of the season.
However, they responded in some style against the outmatched side from the capital, with two goals each from Lionel Messi and Pedro alongside strikes from Seydou Keita and Thiago Alcantara and an own goal by Roberto Correa reducing the gap to Madrid at the top of the league back to seven points.
The title may still be out of reach with only three games left to play, after Spanish leaders Real Madrid closed in on their first league title in four years by strolling to a 3-0 victory over Sevilla earlier in the day, but Barca at least delayed the celebrations of their old foes to Wednesday with a smashing victory that saw them cross the 100-goal tally in the league, while Messi's 43rd league goal drew him level with Cristiano Ronaldo in the Pichichi race.
All eyes were on Guardiola in the dug-out, and the soon to be ex-Barca coach rang the changes from midweek, with six players rested from the XI that featured against Chelsea. Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas were on the substitutes' bench, while Xavi Hernandez and Gerard Pique were missing due to injury.
The Catalans were desperate to put on a show for their coach and shell-shocked fans, and stormed into the lead just after a quarter of an hour after a typical Barca build-up. Alexis Sanchez was the architect, with his wonderful diagonal pass freeing Pedro on the right, who squared to Messi at the far post to guide home from a few yards out.
Rayo almost responded immediately after the restart, but Jose Pinto was alert to push away Diego Costa’s header from a free kick at the far post.
The chance passed them by, and Barca were 2-0 up after 26 minutes. Keita sent Sanchez through on goal, and the Chilean’s finish from a tight angle was diverted into the net by Correa.
The visitors were dominant, finding holes in the Rayo midfield and defensive lines at will. However, they were indebted to Pinto once more just after half-hour, the stand-in keeper tipping away Roberto Trashorras’ free kick at full stretch.
Messi’s brilliance soon put the Catalans out of sight six minutes before the interval, the Argentine waltzing past multiple challenges on the edge of the box before slipping in Keita, who made no mistake from close range.
Barely a minute into the second half, it was 4-0. Sanchez again did the hard work, as he broke free down the left before squaring to Messi inside the area. The World Player of the Year, who was left in tears following Barcelona's unlikely Champions League exit to Chelsea, certainly looked refreshed as met the Chilean's return pass inside the area for a finish that bounced back off the crossbar, but Pedro was on hand to stroke home the rebound.
It should have been a fifth within minutes after Thiago was picked out in a great position inside the area by Messi, but the young midfielder put his effort the wrong side of the post.
The match was well and truly over, but Pinto was forced into another spectacular save with 20 minutes to go, getting fingertips to a powerful drive by Alhassane Bangoura.
Thiago added a fifth with just over 10 minutes to go, with a simple header from close range following great work out wide by substitute Dani Alves.
It was 6-0 after 87 minutes, Pedro side-footing coolly into the back of the net after getting on the end of a clever lifted pass from Messi.
Messi rounded off matters in injury time with powerful finish from a quintessential Barca team move, a goal that moves him on terms with Cristiano Ronaldo in the quest for the Pichichi.
Next up for Barca is a visit from Malaga, while Rayo visit Mallorca, with both matches taking place next Wednesday. Madrid though, can clinch the title with a win away to Athletic Bilbao on the same day.
In other matches on Sunday, under the watchful eye of Qatar owner Sheik Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani, Malaga continued their run toward securing a Champions League spot as they beat Valencia 1-0 to match the third-placed club's 55-point total.
Ignacio Camacho headed in the 27th-minute winner for the hosts, who enjoyed a man advantage over the final half hour after Sofiane Feghouli was red-carded for clashing with Jose Rondon.
Malaga are three points ahead of Levante in the race for the league's final Champions League qualifying spot, which slipped further out of reach for Europa League finalists Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao.
Real Betis scored twice in the final four minutes to lead 2-1 before Rademel Falcao headed home his 23rd goal of the season in the 94th for Atletico to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Zaragoza maintained their chances of avoiding the drop with a 2-0 victory over Athletic, who have 48 points to sit one back of Atletico.
Zaragoza join Sporting on 34 points, four behind Villarreal in the last safe spot. Racing Santander have already been relegated.
"The team is drained, the players have given their all," Zaragoza coach Manolo Jimenez said. "We're going to feel tired over the final stretch but the best remedy for the bruises, muscle problems and fatigues are victories."