Lionel Messi confirmed his status as LaLiga’s most influential player as his superb free kick saw Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid 1-0 yesterday to open up an eight-point gap at the top of the table.
Second-placed Atletico visited the Camp Nou in better form than their hosts, but Barca controlled the first 45 minutes, and Messi’s 26th-minute dead ball arrowed to the top corner was scant reward for their domination of possession and territory.
Atletico were a different team after the break, coach Diego Simeone throwing on two extra forwards, but a blaugrana back-line marshalled by Gerard Pique held out without too many problems.
With 27 weeks gone in LaLiga, Messi has more goals, assists, shots at goal, completed dribbles, and created chances than any other player..
“Messi makes the difference,” said Simeone. “If we take the [Barca] jersey off Messi, and put on an Atletico one, maybe we would have won 1-0.”
Barca coach Ernesto Valverde did not deny that his number 10 — who now has 600 career goals for club and country — had been the decisive influence on the game.
“There’s no player like Messi in the world,” said Valverde. “I don’t know what would have happened if he was playing for Atletico. I don’t want to imagine it, either.”
Simeone had sent his side out wearing yellow shirts, as they had when they clinched the 2013/14 title at the same stadium. Their second-half pressure saw them push Barca back for long periods, but not create many clear chances, although the linesman’s flag denied substitute Kevin Gameiro an equaliser.
“I’m leaving happy with what we did in the second half,,” said Simeone. “We were ourselves — with that hard work, intensity, conviction.
“It’s very difficult to say whether the title race is over. Everything indicates Barca will not lose three or four games now. We did the impossible before, but it is not possible every year.”
Barca look set to regain the title with a team based around Messi’s brilliance at one end, and a sturdy defence at the other, although without the midfield flair of previous seasons.
Atletico’s star attackers Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa, in great form in recent weeks, both had little influence on the game, with Barca centre-back Pique outstanding despite playing with an injured knee.
The game’s momentum was also affected by a first-half hamstring injury for Barca captain Andres Iniesta, which makes the veteran playmaker a doubt for next week’s Champions League last-16 return leg at home to Chelsea. Substitute Andre Gomes had a poor game and was whistled by the Camp Nou crowd, while former Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho was excellent when his team were on top but faded after the break.
“You cannot substitute a player like [Iniesta], there is nobody like him,” said Valverde.
“We will wait and see how his injury is, it seems like a serious tear. He was playing an incredible game, getting away from their pressure, knitting the play together. Gomes is a player who helps us, and the fans have to understand that. But [on the other hand] you have to win them over.”
Elsewhere, third-placed Real Madrid, already well out of the title race, warmed up for tomorrow’s Champions League last-16 second leg against Paris Saint Germain with a 3-1 win at home to Getafe on Saturday. Gareth Bale opened the scoring in his British record 117th LaLiga appearance, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s double taking the Portuguese to 301 LaLiga goals in 286 games.
Down at the bottom, 17th-placed Levante fired coach Juan Ramon Lopez Muniz after Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Espanyol, the second time in four days the team had conceded an injury time goal.
In France, Angel Di Maria and Christopher Nkunku scored second-half goals as PSG won 2-0 at Troyes to go 14 points clear in Ligue 1.
PSG made light of Neymar’s absence in their first league encounter since his season-ending injury last week — only a brilliant display by Troyes goalkeeper Erwin Zelazny denied them a more convincing victory.
Rennes extended their unbeaten league run to four matches and climbed to fifth after a 2-0 win at Amiens.
All of Sunday’s Serie A matches were called off following the sudden death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori who died at the age of 31.
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