BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Alexis Sanchez netted his first hat trick for Barcelona to spark its 4-0 win over Elche at Camp Nou on Sunday, setting up a highly anticipated showdown with Atletico Madrid next week between the top two teams in the Spanish league.
With Lionel Messi watching from the stands and Neymar waiting in the dugout, Barcelona turned to Alexis and its core of Spain internationals for a second straight victory without its star forwards on either side of the two-week winter break.
Alexis opened the scoring in the seventh minute and struck twice more in the 63rd and 69th after Pedro Rodriguez had doubled the advantage and Xavi Hernandez had missed a penalty kick.
"The holidays were good for me," said Alexis, who also credited first-year coach Gerardo Martino for improving his scoring rate.
"I think Martino gave me the confidence I needed as a player," Alexis told GOL TV.
Barcelona's victory was its ninth in as many league games at home this season, and it remained tied on points with Atletico atop the standings. The pressure is now on Real Madrid come Monday when it hosts Celta Vigo trailing the pacesetting pair by eight points.
Alexis and Pedro lead the team with 11 goals each in league play, tying them as the league's fourth-highest scorers this campaign.
Both players were given ovations when substituted late, with Neymar coming on for the final minutes.
Martino said he was as impressed by Alexis' treble as anyone else, especially with his last goal from a free kick.
"Alexis takes free kicks well in practice," Martino said. "When Leo, Xavi, Cesc or Neymar are playing, they almost never let him take one. One time he sent a free kick into the wall and we all thought it was his last. I told the bench that as a joke before he took today's kick and he ended up scoring it."
Elsewhere, Real Sociedad downed Athletic Bilbao 2-0 in an entertaining Basque Country derby to close to just one point of its rivals in fourth place and Spain's last Champions League spot.
Carlos Bacca scored one goal and set up two more to help Sevilla beat Getafe 3-0 at home, provisionally lifting the club into sixth place behind Sociedad with its fifth victory in a six-game unbeaten streak in the league.
Osasuna edged Espanyol 1-0 in Pamplona thanks to Alvaro Cejudo's 33rd-minute goal to escape the relegation zone. Espanyol coach Javier Aguirre was expelled from the dugout in the second half, apparently for arguing with the referee.