MADRID (Reuters) - The unstoppable Lionel Messi set a record for goals scored in a calendar year and kept unbeaten La Liga leaders Barcelona six points clear of Atletico Madrid in a nervy 2-1 win at Real Betis on Sunday.
The Argentine World Player of the Year netted his 85th and 86th goals of 2012 in an entertaining game at the Benito Villamarin in Seville to overhaul the previous best of 85 set by German Gerd Mueller in 1972.
Messi’s exploits overshadowed those of Atletico striker Radamel Falcao, who earlier put bottom side Deportivo Coruna to the sword with a five-goal haul in a crushing 6-0 home success.
The prolific Colombian, known as ‘the tiger’ and coveted by many of Europe’s richest clubs, took his tally for the season to 16 in 15 matches as Atletico restored a five-point advantage over city rivals Real Madrid.
Jose Mourinho’s Real side had to twice come from behind to scrape a 3-2 win at Real Valladolid on Saturday which closed the gap to Atletico, who they beat 2-0 at the Bernabeu last weekend, to two points overnight.
However, Atletico responded by romping to a 12th win in 15 outings this term against a promoted Depor side in danger of dropping straight back to the second division.
Barca have won all their games this season apart from a 2-2 draw at home to Real in October and Messi’s double put them on 43 points, with Atletico on 37 and Real on 32. Betis are fifth on 25 points, level with fourth-placed Malaga, who thumped Granada 4-0 on Saturday.
“It seems impossible that he (Messi) can score that quantity of goals in a year but there are three matches left and we hope he keeps increasing his tally,” Barca coach Tito Vilanova told a news conference.
“We hope he has a long way to go in his career because he is very young,” he added. “I don’t think we will see another player like him.”
Vilanova’s side predictably dominated Betis for most of the first half but lost control after the break and the unfortunate Andalusians were three times denied by the frame of the goal.
Messi equalled Mueller’s record when he picked up the ball in a central position in the 16th minute and left the Betis defence standing before sending an angled shot across goal into the bottom right corner.
Andres Iniesta’s clever back heel set Messi up to score again nine minutes later with a sweeping strike from a similar position just inside the penalty area that flew into the same corner of the goal.
Ruben Castro pulled a goal back for the home side in the 39th minute to set the stage for a difficult second half for the visitors.
Messi came close to a hat-trick around five minutes from time when he spun in the area and Betis goalkeeper Adrian turned his shot onto a post before Jordi Alba struck the rebound off the top off the crossbar.
The defeat was tough on Betis, who beat Real 1-0 at home last month and gave Barca one of their toughest workouts so far this season which deserved at least a point.
Atletico forward Diego Costa made amends for Thursday’s Europa League red card when he opened the scoring at the Calderon with a header from Koke’s corner in the 23rd minute.
Depor midfielder Juan Valeron headed against a post four minutes later but Atletico doubled their lead on their next foray forward when Falcao sped on to Koke’s pass and fired a fizzing low drive into the corner of the net.
A quick throw on the left three minutes before the break set up the 26-year-old for his second and he crashed a dipping shot past Daniel Aranzubia from the corner of the penalty area.
Falcao then won and converted a penalty in the 64th minute to complete his hat-trick, flung himself to head Arda Turan’s deflected shot over the line and netted a clinical fifth in the 71st minute.
He is the first player to score five goals in a La Liga match since Fernando Morientes for Real Madrid against Las Palmas in 2002.
Real Mallorca continued their plunge towards the relegation places when they crashed to a 4-0 reverse at Levante, the Balearic Islanders’ eighth defeat in a winless run of 10 games.
Obafemi Martins put Levante ahead just before halftime and David Navarro, Ruben Garcia and Vicente Iborra scored in the space of 10 minutes early in the second half.
Levante, through to the last 32 of the Europa League, are sixth on 24 points, with Mallorca 17th on 13.
Struggling Athletic Bilbao claimed only a fifth victory of the season when they won 1-0 at home to Celta Vigo.
Aritz Aduriz’s 33rd-minute header settled the game at the San Mames and lifted Bilbao to 13th on 18 points. Celta are in 15th on 15. (Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)