Barcelona struck what will surely prove to be a decisive blow in La Liga’s title race on Sunday afternoon, establishing an eight-point advantage over nearest challengers Atletico Madrid with a 1-0 win at the Nou Camp.
Although the victory came by the narrowest of margins, it was a fully deserved success for the home team, who managed to create several decent chances to add to Lionel Messi’s magnificent free-kick after 25 minutes against a stubborn Atletico defence that has only conceded 12 goals in 27 league games.
The winning goal was also the 600th of Messi’s career.
The closest Barca came to a second goal was the unlikely route of a fierce left-footed volley by the excellent Sergio Busquets from a corner, forcing visiting keeper Jan Oblak into a smart reflex save.
There were also a couple of efforts on target for ex-Liverpool man Philippe Coutinho, who delivered a bright performance starting on the right of a forward three and then on the left of midfield after captain Andres Iniesta went off injured.
Messi also had a dangerous shot deflected over the bar and Luis Suarez sent a late curler narrowly wide, while at the other end Atletico only managed one shot on target in the whole game – and that was only a gently looping header by Saul Niguez which home keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved with ease.
Atletico attempted to increase their intensity in the final stages as manager Diego Simeone finished with four forwards in a bold 4-2-4 formation, but Diego Costa was subdued by the excellent home central defensive pairing of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti, and reported Barca transfer target Antoine Griezmann couldn’t maintain his golden form after coming into the game on the back of consecutive hat-tricks.
It was entirely appropriate that Messi was the match-winner of this top-of-the-table clash with his brilliant first-half free-kick, because the Argentine has been magnificent throughout the campaign to lead La Liga in both scoring (24) and assists (12).
The goal also completed another spectacular week for Messi, who somehow conjured up a new way of making headlines by blasting home magnificent free-kicks of varying styles in three consecutive games.