BARCELONA – An early goal on a free kick by Argentine star Lionel Messi was all Barcelona needed to defeat Atletico Madrid 1-0, pulling eight points ahead of their closest rivals in the race for the Spanish First Division soccer title.
Barcelona dominated the first 45 minutes of the match with Messi scoring 26 minutes into play, that tally proving to be decisive despite a tight second half.
Atletico took a defensive approach, putting pressure on Barcelona on their side of the field early on and over time taking the battle into enemy territory.
Only Barcelona’s midfielder Andres Iniesta could penetrate the defensive wall, controlling the pace of the undefeated league leader.
Both teams traded scoring chances, with Sergio Busquets and Messi firing at Jan Oblak’s goal and Thomas Partey testing Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in the lone opportunity Atletico had in the first half.
While Iniesta apparently struggled with right thigh discomfort after an early contact with Sime Vrsaljko, Messi got Barcelona on the scoreboard with a superb free kick that Oblak’s best effort could not block.
Nine minutes later, Iniesta was forced to leave the field due to another muscle injury, but his departure did not affect Barcelona’s dominant performance, with Philippe Coutinho squandering two scoring chances.
Defender Gerard Pique missed on a close-range header a few minutes before the intermission.
When the game resumed, Atletico sought to put the pressure on Barcelona, while coach Diego Simeone brought in Angel Correa and Kevin Gameiro for Vrsaljko and Gabi, searching for the equalizer.
Atletico started to recover the ball in Barcelona’s territory, with Antoine Griezmann liberated from his defensive duties to boost their attack.
The changes paid off as Griezmann had a chance to draw level, but he could not find the twine, whereupon Barcelona reacted with Messi firing, but Gimenez blocked the ball, and Busquets unsuccessfully tried his luck again.
The referee ruled out a goal by Barcelona’s Luis Suarez for offside and did not award the Catalan club a penalty after Saul pushed Coutinho.
At the other end of the field, the referee also ruled out a goal by Gameiro for offside with five more minutes to go before stoppage time.
The win brings Barcelona’s tally to 69 points at the top of the table, eight points ahead of the second-place Atletico with 11 games to go.