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Messi, Suarez and Neymar combine to down Villarreal

Real Madrid star James Rodriguez

Playing before Madrid's trip to relegated Granada, Barca kept up its end of the bargain to go three points clear of its fierce rival, but it is a fixture that ought not to hold fear for Zinedine's Zidane men - who also hold another game in hand over the Catalans.

Barcelona, aiming to win their third La Liga title in a row, have two more league matches left, while current European champions Real have four.

The match pitted the league's best home attack against the best away defence and it initially looked as though the latter would come out on top as a lacklustre Barcelona struggled to break down a resilient Villarreal side in the opening exchanges.

The hosts took the lead in the 21st minute when Messi's shot from the left was deflected into Neymar's path and the Brazilian took a touch before stabbing the ball calmly past goalkeeper Andres Fernandez.

It is the fifth time in the last 10 seasons that the Argentine has surpassed 50 goals in all competitions, having set a personal best in 2011-12 when he netted an astonishing 73 goals in 60 appearances.

Cedric Bakambu fired Villarreal level in the 32nd after beating the offside trap to latch on to a clever through ball from Roberto Soldado.

But the host did take a lead into the interval with a goal typical of Messi, the Argentina captain skirting around Villarreal's defensive line before clipping a shot across Fernandez and in - aided by a deflection off Mario.

Messi has done the most damage with 50 goals in all competitions, Suarez scoring 34 and Neymar chipping in with 16.

Elsewhere, Saul Niguez's strike ensured third-place Atletico Madrid beat Eibar 1-0 at the Vicente Calderon to edge closer to Champions League group stage qualification. Uruguayan defender Godin was sent off in injury time for picking up two bookings inside three minutes.

Carlos Carmona gave them a first victory in eight that moved them within three points of 17th-placed Leganes.