Late Lionel Messi winner against Atletico Madrid sends Barcelona top

Under-fire Barcelona coach Luis Enrique thanked the “terrible” state of Atletico Madrid’s pitch for Lionel Messi’s winner two minutes from time as his side moved top of La Liga.

Messi stabbed home at the second attempt after his first effort was blocked to register his 27th career goal against Atletico and take Barca two points clear of Real Madrid and Sevilla.

Real, though, have two games in hand on their title rivals, the first of which comes later on Sunday at Villarreal.

“It was a terrible pitch for passing the ball, but I think it favoured us for both the goals,” said Enrique.

Rafinha’s scrappy effort fired Barca into the lead just after the hour, but Atletico responded seven minutes later through Diego Godin.

Defeat leaves fourth-placed Atletico just one point clear of Real Sociedad in the battle for the final Champions League slot.

“We competed very well, but they showed their class in both areas,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.

Following their Champions League thrashing at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain and struggles at home to Leganes last weekend, Enrique switched from the Catalans’ habitual 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with Messi forced into an advanced midfield role.

“It was a game against a direct rival of maximum importance,” added Enrique.

“There are still 42 points left to play for, but we had to come here and win to be in the position we wanted and now we are.”

The change in tactics did little to stem Barca’s slump in form early on as Atletico dominated the opening half hour.

Yannick Carrasco and Godin blasted wildly off target when well placed inside the area early on.

Atletico’s best effort of the opening half came from long range, though, as Antoine Griezmann’s driven effort on his weaker right foot forced a brilliant flying save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Barcelona thought they had gone in front against the run of play on the half hour mark when Luis Suarez headed in from close range after a goalmouth scramble.

However, the Uruguayan was penalised for a handball after Jan Oblak parried Messi’s initial effort.

Oblak was making his first appearance since December 12, but the Slovenian showed no signs of rustiness to once again prove his credentials as one of the finest goalkeepers in the world.

Firstly, Oblak produced a sensational stop to tip Messi’s dipping free-kick over and then clutched Gerard Pique’s header from point-blank range.

Both sides passed up huge chances at the start of the second half.

Firstly, Suarez screwed his shot horribly wide after being played in by Messi.

Then at the other end, ter Stegen made another excellent stop to deny Griezmann from a narrow angle.

The deadlock was eventually broken in scrappy fashion on 63 minutes as Rafinha profited from a loose ball inside the area to fire low into the far corner.

However, the lead lasted only seven minutes as Godin rose higher than a host of Barca defenders to flick home Koke’s free-kick for the equaliser.

Yet, when Barca needed a potential season-defining goal, Messi again came up trumps with his 35th in as many games this season.

The five-time World Player of the Year’s first effort from Suarez’s cut-back was blocked, but he followed up to prod past the helpless Oblak and move Barca top of the table.

© AFP

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