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BARCELONA: Lionel Messi scored twice as La Liga champions Barcelona saw off a persistent Valencia side, who had Eliaquim Mangala sent off in the first half, to win 4-2 on Sunday and close to within two points of leaders Real Madrid.

Earlier, Antoine Griezmann scored a stunning free-kick as Atletico Madrid compounded a week to forget for Sevilla with a 3-1 at the Vicente Calderon.

Back in Nou Camp for the first time since their 6-1 victory over Paris St Germain to progress to the Champions League quarter-finals in stunning fashion, Barca got another outstanding performance from Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to keep their domestic title defence alive.

“We had to remain patient, fight back and increase the pace of the match,” Barca boss Luis Enrique told Spanish TV station Movistar.

“We created a huge number of scoring opportunities and deserved to win by a bigger margin. Against an opponent with very good players we’ve picked up three valuable points.”

Atletico see off stuttering Sevilla

Manchester City loanee Mangala stunned the Nou Camp by heading Valencia in front in the 29th minute but Suarez soon cancelled out the opener following a quick throw-in by Neymar and the Uruguayan then won a penalty as he was hauled down by Mangala, who was sent off for a second booking.

Messi beat penalty-saving expert Diego Alves from the spot for the second time this season to pull Barca level in the 45th minute but Munir El Haddadi, who is on loan from the Catalans, equalised immediately in injury time of the first half.

Barca dominated the second half and took the lead for the second time when Messi smashed the ball past Alves’ near post but the visiting side created an opening to level again but Munir squandered the chance.

Suarez somehow slotted wide with the goal gaping after Alves had denied Messi his hat-trick, whilst Neymar hit the bar.

But Barca finally put the game to bed a minute from time when Neymar crossed for midfielder Andre Gomes to tap home against his old side.

Barca are second in the standings on 63 points, two behind Real who have a game in hand.

“We controlled the game but they made the most of a set piece and a counter attack. Overall we played well, we played at a high tempo and in general we can be happy with the game,” Barca captain Andres Iniesta told reporters.

“The title race is still alive and we’re obliged to stay up there and take advantage of any opportunity we get if Real Madrid slip up.”

At the Calderon, Griezmann shone for Atletico once more as he teed up Diego Godin’s opener in the 37th minute and then struck a stunning free-kick well outside the area in the 61st for his 22nd goal of the season.

Koke added Atletico’s third before Joaquin Correa registered a consolation for Sevilla.

Sevilla were dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico’s quarter-final opponents Leicester City on Wednesday and have seen their lead over Atletico in third place in La Liga now whittled down to two points.

Sevilla have 57 points while Atletico are in fourth place on 55.

“Sevilla have had a magnificent season, praised by everyone and so this makes our performance even more laudable,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone told reporters.

Defeat realistically ends Sevilla’s already fading shot at the title as they fall eight points behind Real.

And coach Jorge Sampaoli claimed he has to rediscover the “real Sevilla” during the international break after four games without a win.

“We have come from a very hard blow to take and now we have to find solutions and the real Sevilla.”

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2017