Late Lionel Messi strike beats Atletico Madrid and sends Barcelona top

Lionel Messi was once again the downfall of Atletico Madrid with an 86th-minute winner that kept Barcelona firmly in the title race.

The Argentinian’s 22nd goal in 22 league games against Atleti was also his 20th of the domestic campaign — a figure he has reached for nine successive seasons — as Barca turned up the heat on La Liga rivals Real Madrid.

It was far from a vintage Barca performance, with Rafinha’s scrappy second-half opener having been cancelled out by Diego Godin’s header, yet Messi’s late strike in a 2-1 success seriously dented Atleti’s own title aspirations as their winless run against Luis Enrique’s men was extended to 20 domestic games.

Twelve days on from their 4-0 drubbing against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Luis Enrique approached their next away game by deploying a back three of Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Jeremy Mathieu — not that the formation tweak prevented Atleti from finding holes in the defence.

Yannick Carrasco failed to take advantage when losing Sergi Roberto at the back post and Godin stabbed over after Umtiti failed to clear a corner.

Gabi steered a half volley from the edge of the area straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen before a first chance arrived for Antoine Griezmann when his goal-bound effort was blocked by Umtiti.

Another defensive lapse, this time from Pique, allowed Griezmann to unleash a fierce attempt with his less-favoured right boot which ter Stegen did well to tip over.

The visitors’ attacking triumvirate had been nullified until the 29th minute when Neymar lead a break that ended with the ball in the Atleti net.

The Brazilian cut the ball back for Messi to fire at Jan Oblak and a mad scramble ensued between the goalkeeper, Luis Suarez and Filipe Luis, with the Barcelona striker being penalised for handling before heading home after Filipe Luis had clattered a clearance against his own woodwork.

Nevertheless, it seemed to encourage Barca as Oblak produced a stupendous one-handed stop from a Messi free kick before stopping a Pique header going beyond him on his line.

Suarez should then really have given Barcelona the lead four minutes after the restart. He was sent through by Messi’s fine pass around the corner, yet the ball seemed to get caught under his feet and his attempt to bend his effort around Oblak resulted in it going well wide.

However, it was the visitors who struck first anyway in the 64th minute in scrappy fashion.

Neymar’s effort from the edge of the box was blocked and came out to Suarez, whose own try came off both Godin and Carrasco before falling to Rafinha to apply a first-time finish into the corner.

The lead lasted only six minutes as Godin’s second goal of the season drew the hosts level. The Uruguayan reached Koke’s free kick from the left despite being sandwiched between Sergio Busquets and Umtiti and glanced an effort past ter Stegen.

Up until that point Messi was having a frustrating afternoon and he was booked for dissent before delivering a late winner for the second straight weekend.

From his own free kick, the home side failed to clear and Suarez picked out the unmarked Argentinian and though Stefan Savic blocked the first attempt, he reacted quickest to stab home the rebound and end Atletico’s resistance once more.

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