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LIONEL Messi scored three times as Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid 3-1 and took a firm step towards securing a place in the Cope del Rey quarterfinals yesterday.
Messi, watched by his Argentina coach Diego Maradona at Atletico's Vicente Calderon Stadium, received an ovation from spectators when he was substituted moments after completing his hat trick.
Messi described the applause from the opposing fans as "very special."
"It's something you can't explain. It's really lovely for any player," Messi was quoted as saying by agency Europa Press.
The second leg of the fifth-round match will be next Wednesday at Camp Nou where Barcelona will be expected to advance in a competition it has won a record 24 times, but not since 1998.
Messi scored in the 12th, 58th -- from a penalty which led to the dismissal of home defender John Heitinga -- and 80th minutes.
Atletico replied through substitute Tomas Ujfalusi in the 69th.
On Wednesday, defending champion Valencia visits Racing Santander, while Sevilla entertains Deportivo La Coruna. Third-division Real Union, Real Madrid's conqueror in the previous round, hosts Real Betis, Valladolid visits Sporting Gijon, and third-division Polideportivo El Ejido meets Espanyol.
On Thursday, Osasuna welcomes Athletic Bilbao and Almeria travels to Mallorca.
Barcelona's victory, achieved first-team players including striker Samuel Eto'o, midfielder Xavi Hernandez and goalkeeper Victor Valdes, was its 21st in 26 games in all competitions this season. The Catalan team was 11 points clear in the league and has reached the Champions League knockout stage.
Atletico, which crashed 6-1 against Barcelona in the Spanish league at Camp Nou in October, lacked top striker Sergio Aguero and left back Antonio Lopez, both of whom were running high temperatures.
Barcelona took the lead courtesy of a combination between Messi and right back Daniel Alves.
Messi's pass was deftly returned by his teammate, who flicked the ball with his heel to split the Atletico defense and allow the Argentina forward to calmly shoot past Atletico goalkeeper Gregory Coupet.
Ten minutes later, Messi was hacked down by Florent Sinama-Pongolle although referee Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez appeared to mistake the Atletico forward with midfielder Paulo Assuncao and issued the latter with a yellow card.
The yellow card was one of four handed to Atletico during the first half as the home team resorted to desperate tactics to stem Barcelona's superior football.
The referee evidently modified his decision to caution Assuncao as the Atletico player received a yellow card for a foul on Alves in the 51st but remained on the field.
However, Atletico's problems soon grew when Heitinga was sent off for tripping Messi in the goalmouth as he ran to meet Alves' right cross, with Messi easily converting the resulting penalty.
Ujfalusi, who had replaced Assuncao six minutes earlier, reduced the deficit when he stooped to head home Simao Sabrosa's inswinging corner. The goal was the Czech Republic defender's first for Atletico since his move from Fiorentina in the offseason.
Messi then rattled the bar after a spectacular dash past several defenders. After the home team failed to clear the ball, Messi was found by Andres Iniesta's chip and the forward evaded Coupet before slotting home his third goal.
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