|Messi's three goals put Barca back on top of the table for a couple of hours [EPA]
A sublime Lionel Messi hat-trick fired Barcelona to a 3-0 home win over third-placed Valencia and briefly sent the Spanish champions three points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the Primera Division.
But Real's Gonzalo Higuain repeated the trick away to Real Vallodolid, his three adding to a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick to put the Madridistas ahead of Barca on goal difference with a 4-1 win.
It was balm for Real after their European Champions League exit to Lyon, and a welcome return to form for Barca on the domestic front.
After a draw and a defeat in their previous four La Liga matches, Barca needed a convincing performance at the Nou Camp to get their title defence back on course and again it was league top scorer Messi who made the difference.
The European champions found it difficult to exert their customary dominance in a goalless first half before the Argentina forward skipped through the Valencia defence in the 56th minute and fired a low shot past goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez.
Substitute Thierry Henry set Messi up for his 21st and 22nd goals of the campaign, the first after he cut in from the right and curled the ball into the far corner and the second a dinked effort that left Sanchez on the seat of his pants.
Real, who went top on goal difference last weekend after Barca were held 2-2 at Almeria, can reclaim first place with victory at struggling Real Valladolid in Sunday's late kickoff.
Barca and Valencia were both missing their leading strikers, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended after his sending-off in Almeria and Spain international David Villa sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Catalan coach Pep Guardiola was also forced to watch from the stands after he was dismissed from the bench last weekend.
After Messi put the home side ahead after the break, Barca keeper Victor Valdes produced a superb stop to deny substitute Nikola Zigic in the 68th with the Serb clean through on goal.
Valencia defender Hedwiges Maduro picked up a second yellow card and was sent off with just over 20 minutes left before Messi struck twice in two minutes to kill off the game.
In the late match, Ronaldo opened the scoring in the 28th minute with a fierce free kick that took a slight deflection off the wall before flying into the top corner.
|Higuain also grabbed three as Real regained the lead [AFP]
Messi's Argentina teammate Higuain doubled the advantage a minute before half time, slotting home Rafael van der Vaart's cross, and grabbed his second when Ronaldo nodded a simple Xabi Alonso pass into his path.
Calamitous defending from Real saw Raul Albiol put through his own net in the 58th minute before Ronaldo crossed for Higuain to grab his third.
Barca and Real are both on 65 points from 26 games, with Real holding the advantage with their greater goal difference.
Ranking in the event of a tie at the end of the season will be determined by head-to-head record.
In earlier matches on Sunday, a goal in each half from Joseba Llorente and Damian Escudero gave Villarreal a 2-0 home win over bottom side Xerez.
Tenerife notched up only their sixth win of the campaign, beating visiting Espanyol 4-1, relegation-threatened Racing Santander and Real Zaragoza drew 0-0 and a Fernando Soriano strike gave Almeria a 1-0 home victory over Malaga.