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.
Messi tore his left hamstring on Nov. 11 and only returned to training with Barcelona this week, having spent time in Argentina doing rehab. He was left off the squad for Sunday's game and Martino will have to decide if he brings him back against Getafe on Wednesday in the Copa del Rey to get him up to speed before the big trip to Atletico next Sunday.
"Messi is fine physically and in good spirits," Martino said. "Whether he plays or not depends on his mentality, on whether he has gotten over the fear of the injury. Maybe we should have a little more patience (with him)."
Alexis charged behind his marker to meet Jordi Alba's cross from the left and volley it into the corner of the net to get Barcelona rolling.
Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes looked a tad rusty in his first action in six weeks returning from injury in the 14th when Yiadom Boakye blasted the ball off the post, but he wasn't tested again after Pedro made it 2-0 two minutes later.
Pedro followed up his hat trick at Getafe in the last round by meeting Cesc Fabregas' weighted pass behind the defense, then used one touch to round goalkeeper Antonio "Tono" Rodriguez before sliding the ball inside the near post.
Xavi, also back from injury, wasted penalty three minutes after halftime when he sent his spot kick wide after Fabregas had been fouled in the area by Elche's Ionut Sapunaru.
But Pedro took Andres Iniesta's through ball and squared for Alexis to fire into the open net in the 63rd. Moments later Alexis earned his free kick from a foul outside the box that the Chile forward promptly curved over the defensive wall with a right-footed strike.
The game's only negative for Barcelona was defender Marc Bartra apparently hurting his leg late on.
Sociedad took control of the back-and-forth match at Anoeta Stadium when Antoine Griezmann followed up his own rebound from long range for this 12th league goal of the season two minutes before halftime.
Bilbao sought the equalizer but it was Sociedad's Ruben Pardo who capped the victory in added time.