Masterful Messi fires Barcelona again in La Liga

Madrid: Lionel Messi delivered another masterful performance as Barcelona sailed past Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on Sunday to take an 11-point lead over nearest rivals Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

After putting Chelsea to the sword in the Champions League midweek, Messi scored for the sixth game in a row against Athletic at the Camp Nou to propel Barca closer to the domestic title.

“Every day he discovers something new, something different, he’s very aware of what he has to do, what the team needs from him at each moment,” Barca coach Erneste Valverde said of Messi, the Spanish league’s leading scorer this season with 25 goals.

“Many times it seems that the coach has to teach the players, but what the coach really does is learn alongside them as things go on. We hope to keep on learning together.”

A dominant start from Barca yielded the opening goal after just eight minutes as Messi found Jordi Alba out on the left, his pull back neatly side-footed into the far corner by Paco Alcacer, filling in for the suspended Luis Suarez.

The hosts looked a constant threat early on and Philippe Coutinho was denied a second when he rattled the woodwork, while Ousmane Dembele should have done much better with just Kepa Arrizabalaga to beat.

But the Athletic goalkeeper was powerless to keep out a crunching low drive from Messi on the half hour, the Argentine taking a touch to control a pass from Dembele before lashing home.

Coutinho, the club’s record signing, struck the woodwork for a second time as he tried to lob Kepa after latching onto a clever lofted pass from Paulinho, who then smacked a curling shot of his own against the upright.

Record of invincibility nears

Barca extended their unbeaten La Liga run to 36 matches dating back to last season, drawing to within two games of the record set Real Sociedad between 1979 and 1980.

“I would love to (break the record) but why carry on talking about it if we can lose, win or draw the next game,” Valverde said. “We’re not going to tempt fate. The next match in Seville will be a very difficult trip.”

Second-placed Atletico effectively surrendered their hopes of overhauling Barca at the top, as two late goals from 20-year-old Turkey striker Enes Unal handed Villarreal a 2-1 victory over Diego Simeone’s side.

Antoine Griezmann converted a first-half penalty after he was impeded by Jaume Costa, before Koke hit the post.

But Unal headed in an 82nd-minute equaliser for the hosts and turned home a stoppage-time winner as Villarreal climbed up to fifth.

Real Madrid can reclaim third place from Valencia at home to Girona later on Sunday.

Earlier, Sevilla crashed to a 2-1 league defeat to Leganes just days after pulling off the surprise elimination of Manchester United in the Champions League.

The loss means Sevilla are increasingly unlikely to qualify for the Champions League through La Liga this season.

Unai Bustinza put Leganes ahead four minutes before half-time with a superb header in their Butarque stadium in the Madrid suburbs. Javi Eraso doubled the lead in the 69th minute.

Mexican international Miguel Layun pulled a goal back for Sevilla in the 90th minute when he was fed by the scorer of both goals in the triumph at Old Trafford, French striker Wissam Ben Yedder.

Sevilla face a torrid few weeks with leaders Barcelona next up in La Liga on March 31 before they host Bayern Munich on April 3 in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.

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