By Williams ‘Bantu’ Irubor
Lionel Messi scored a late winner as Barcelona beat Atletico Madrid to go briefly top of La Liga.
Rafinha gave Barca the lead when Luis Suarez – who had an effort ruled out – took a shot which ricocheted off two defenders to land at his feet.
Diego Godin levelled when he headed home Koke’s free-kick.
But Messi pounced in the 86th minute to win the game for the champions after his initial effort was blocked by defender Stefan Savic.
Real Madrid went back to the top of the table by one point later in the day when they came back from 2-0 down to beat Villarreal 3-2. They still have a game in hand on Barca.
Atleti, the 2014 champions, are now 10 points off leaders Real.
Barca were far from their best again, but they have now followed their 4-0 Champions League humbling by Paris St-Germain with two 2-1 victories in La Liga – with Messi scoring a late winner in each of them.
Atletico dominated the first half, with Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen making a multitude of saves. The visitors improved after the break but looked destined to be held until Messi’s late intervention.
The Argentine, who had earlier forced a brilliant Jan Oblak save from a free-kick, pounced late on again from close range. Luis Suarez played the ball back to Messi, whose first shot was blocked by Savic. But he remained alert to poke home the rebound and send Barca top for four hours.
That was Messi’s 20th La Liga goal in 21 games this season – and his 21st against Atletico in the league in as many attempts.
Atletico had looked well out of the title race at the end of 2016 but a run of eight La Liga games without a defeat, including six wins, had given them an outside chance of mounting a late challenge.
But nine points off Barca and 10 off Real, who have played one game fewer, is surely too big a bridge at this stage of the season, even for the brilliant coach Diego Simeone.
They will come to rue a series of missed efforts – with Godin driving over, and Gabi and Antoine Griezmann forcing saves from Ter Stegen in the first half, and the German again denying Griezmann after the break.
Godin’s goal, his first against Barca since the effort which won the 2013-14 La Liga title, had looked enough for a point before Messi’s late winner.
Now the real question is whether Atletico can hold onto the final Champions League qualifying spot, with fifth-placed Real Sociedad sitting only one point behind them.