Lionel Messi on Sunday underlined his ability to make the difference on big occasions by hitting a sensational late goal to give Barcelona a 1-0 win at title rivals Atletico Madrid as the champions reclaimed top spot in La Liga from Real Madrid.
The Argentine, playing his 701st game for Barca, settled a pulsating and tense encounter in the 86th minute, galloping down the right wing and cutting inside, before playing a one-two with Luis Suarez and guiding the ball into the bottom corner.
It was Messi’s 30th goal in 39 competitive games against Atletico and it inflicted a first home defeat on Diego Simeone’s side since they were beaten by Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano in February.
“Whenever you have a game like this which is really tight and really tough, being able to count on Messi is always an advantage,” Barca coach Ernesto Valverde said.
Messi’s strike saw Barca return to the top of the standings with 31 points after 14 games, ahead of Real Madrid on goal-difference, while Atletico were left in sixth on 25 points, having played one match more.
Atleti and Barca both hit the woodwork, while visiting goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen made two stunning saves. The hosts felt Gerard Pique should have been shown a second yellow card in the second half for a late tackle on Alvaro Morata.
“We feel very hard done by,” Atletico midfielder Saul Niguez said. “We played superbly and Barcelona had hardly any chances, but when Messi appears he is capable of doing anything and he made it look so easy, that’s why he is the best.”
Atleti were also fortunate not to have a player sent off when Vitolo slammed into Pique’s knee with a fierce challenge.
Antoine Griezmann got a hostile reception from the home fans in his first game against his old side since a bitter transfer to Barca in the summer and had a poor game, firing his one chance over the bar.
Messi clinched the 2014-2015 La Liga title for Barca with a strike against Atletico, and also hit winning goals against them in pivotal games in the 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 seasons.
His goal on Sunday could also prove crucial in what looks set to be a thrilling two-horse race between Barca and Real Madrid, who meet in El Clasico at the Camp Nou on Dec. 18.
“We suffered a little, but games like these are the ones which can win you the title,” said Barca’s Sergi Roberto, who credited his side’s goalkeeper for the win. “Marc saved two clear goals and Messi decided the game, but this was a triumph for the entire team.”
Elsewhere, Sevilla moved up to third place after edged bottom-of-the-table CD Leganes 1-0, Athletic Bilbao defeated Granada 2-0, Getafe crushed Levante UD 4-0 and CA Osasuna won 4-2 away at RCD Espanyol.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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