Lionel Messi came off the bench to move Barcelona within two points of clinching the title with a 4-2 win over Real Betis Balompie at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
Dorlan Pabon and Ruben Perez had twice given the visitors the lead in the first half either side of Alexis Sanchez’s equalizer.
However, after David Villa had once again leveled the scores, it was unsurprisingly left to Messi to decide matters as within three minutes of coming on he fired in a wonderful free-kick, and then was on hand to tap home at the end of a flowing move involving Sanchez and Andres Iniesta.
“The important thing is to go out as league champions,” Sanchez told Canal Plus. “We have to go game by game, fighting for the victories, but the fundamental things is to win the league, whenever it may be. When Messi comes on he offers a lot to the team. It motivates us to play together and it is obvious that he is an important player, but [whether he starts or not] are decisions that I don’t know.”
Following their defeat to Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League last week, Barca again started in the worst possible fashion as a goal-kick from Jose Manuel Pinto was headed back toward the Barca goal by Jorge Molina and avoided everyone on its way through to Pabon, who finished confidently into Jose Manuel Pinto’s right-hand corner.
The lead only lasted six minutes as Iniesta turned wonderfully on the left and delivered a tantalizing ball into the middle, which Sanchez bulleted home with his head to register his sixth league goal of the season.
Villa then passed up two incredible chances to give Barca the lead as he inexplicably blazed over from close range after being teed up perfectly by Iniesta and Xavi, before placing his side-footed effort too close to Adrian after Cristian Tello had cut the ball back from the byline.
Tello was then desperately unlucky as he cut in from the left and rocketed a shot that came off the underside off the bar and did not quite fully cross the line on its way back out.
However, Betis were back in front two minutes before halftime when Perez found the top corner with a glorious long-range strike.
The game was turned on its head again within 15 minutes of the restart, though, as Villa finally got his name on the scoresheet as he took advantage of incredibly slack Betis defending to head home Dani Alves’ cross, before being replaced by Messi.
It took the World Player of the Year just three minutes to make his mark on the game with a sumptuous free-kick that curled into Adrian’s top-left corner.
That goal ensured Messi continued his streak of scoring in 21 consecutive league games and he nearly repeated the trick with another free-kick that struck the bar nine minutes later.
However, the Argentine soon did have his second of the evening thanks an outrageously good Barca move as an Iniesta back-heel released Sanchez and he laid the ball back across goal for Messi to roll into an empty net.
Elsewhere, Real Zaragoza moved out of the relegation zone with just their second win of the year as two goals from Antonio Apono and another from Rodri handed them a comfortable 3-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano de Madrid.
RCD Mallorca are now four points from safety with just four games remaining after they could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to Levante UD.
In the day’s other match, a first-half blitz from Sevilla saw them beat RCD Espanyol 3-0.