MADRID: Lionel Messi picked up from where he left off before the international break, leading Barcelona to another La Liga victory.
After struggling for Argentina yet again, Messi returned to Barcelona and thrived as usual, scoring twice in the 2-0 win over Espanyol in the Catalan derby on Saturday.
His 334th league win with the club tied with former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas for most all-time in the competition. Messi also reached 41 goals, breaking the 40-goal mark for the 10th straight season.
He opened the scoring with a free kick in the 71st and sealed the victory from inside the area in the 89th, leaving Barcelona 10 points in front of Atletico Madrid, who routed fifth-placed Alaves 4-0 later on Saturday.
Messi scored six goals in his last three matches with Barcelona before the international break, when he didn’t do much to help Argentina in a 3-1 loss to Venezuela in a friendly last week. He later complained about the constant criticism against him in his homeland, saying even his six-year-old son asked why he was being attacked.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde defended Messi on Saturday.
“Messi is the same player with Barcelona and with Argentina, and he would be the same if he played with Australia,” Valverde said. “All I can say is that we are delighted with him.” There were no complaints from the crowd at Camp Nou Stadium after another great performance by Messi, who leads the league scoring list with 31, 13 more than his closest competitor, teammate Luis Suarez.
Espanyol defender Victor Sanchez had a chance to clear Messi’s left-footed free kick shot at the goal line but ended up heading the ball into his own net. Messi’s second goal came with an easy low shot after a pass from substitute Malcom.
“Everyone should enjoy Messi while he is still playing,” Espanyol coach Joan “Rubi” Ferrer said. “He is unique and will be missed when he is done playing.”
ATLETICO KEEP PACE
Atletico Madrid rebounded from two straight losses with a comfortable win over Alaves, opening a five-point gap to Real Madrid.
Saul Niguez and Diego Costa scored early in the first half, and Alvaro Morata and Thomas Partey sealed the victory after halftime.
“We needed a win like this,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said. “We have to keep competing until the end.” Costa, who scored with a nice shot from outside the area, had to be replaced at the break because of a muscle problem.
In other matches, Celta Vigo moved closer to escaping the relegation zone with a come-from-behind 3-2 home win over Villarreal.
Striker Iago Aspas scored the game winner by converting an 86th-minute penalty kick. The former Spain player also scored in the 50th to start the comeback after the hosts conceded twice in the first 15 minutes.
Getafe lost a chance to strengthen their grip on fourth place after losing to southern Madrid rivals Leganes 2-0.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2019