BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi scored twice to help Spanish leader Barcelona roll to a 5-0 win at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday, as coach Tito Vilanova established the best start for a first-year coach in the 113-year history of the Catalan club.
Cesc Fabregas set up David Villa's 20th-minute opener to put Barcelona on its way. Messi then scored his 16th and 17th goals in all competitions this season in a second half that also saw Xavi Hernandez and Fabregas find the net.
"This was our best game of the season," Fabregas said.
Messi's two strikes, the first an unstoppable blast from the edge of the box, the second a showcase of fancy footwork to undo the defense, took his league leading tally to 13 goals, four more than Atletico's Radamel Falcao and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi has 73 goals for club and country in 2012, leaving him two shy of matching Brazil great Pele's milestone of 75 in 1958.
"Scoring two more goals isn't important, the important thing is that we have another win and we believe we can keep this up," said Messi, who on Monday will receive the Golden Shoe award for Europe's top scorer last season with an unprecedented 73 goals.
Barcelona's eighth win in its first nine games kept it unbeaten and lifted it three points ahead of Atletico before its match against last-place Osasuna on Sunday.
The no-nonsense victory also kept up Barcelona's pressure on Madrid by opening an 11-point gap ahead of the defending champion's tough test at Mallorca.
Barcelona needed an extra-time winner to beat Celtic in the Champions League midweek and had to score five times to edge out Deportivo La Coruna last weekend.
But after weathering Rayo's energized start, Vilanova's team eased to a victory which kept it perfect through five away outings in league play.
"We played a serious game at the back and we go away satisfied because it is important to have kept a clean sheet," said Vilanova, whose defense had been suspect this season. "It isn't easy to win 25 of 27 possible points, but we deserve them. We always fight to the finish."
Vilanova had his doubters after being tapped to replace Pep Guardiola this summer following the most successful run in the club's history. But Guardiola's former assistant is exceeding expectations with a better debut than even his mentor managed in 2008 with seven wins, a draw and a loss.
Sergio Busquets and Adriano played well in yet another makeshift combination in the center of Barcelona's defense with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique injured and Javier Mascherano suspended.
Despite its rival's intimidating pedigree, Rayo took the initiative early on at Vallecas Stadium in Madrid. Rayo earned three corner kicks in the first 10 minutes while disrupting Barcelona's passing attack.
But one pass by Fabregas, who assisted on three goals in last weekend's wild 5-4 win at Deportivo, to meet Villa's run inside from the left for the striker to slot home was all it took to turn the tables for good.
"They were all over us, they didn't let us breathe, but we knew how to play through it," said Fabregas. "We knew we had to hang in there, but we got the goal and had more options."
Messi decided the match shortly after halftime. Pedro played wide for back Martin Montoya to send in a cross that the Argentina forward controlled before ripping the ball beyond the goalkeeper with a vicious left-footed strike.
Jemez was sent off in the 76th apparently for complaining about the refereeing.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Malaga remained third— four points behind Atletico— after drawing 0-0 at struggling Espanyol, while Salva Sevilla's early goal gave Real Betis a 1-0 home win over Valencia.
Betis' victory lifted it provisionally into fourth place, trailing Malaga by two points. Madrid and Sevilla are both two points behind Betis heading into their games on Sunday.
Celta Vigo, meanwhile, held on with 10 men for nearly 40 minutes to earn a 1-1 home draw with Deportivo in a regional Galicia derby in northwestern Spain.
Also on Sunday, it's: Real Zaragoza vs. Sevilla, Levante vs. Granada, and Athletic Bilbao vs. Getafe.
Real Valladolid plays Real Sociedad on Monday.