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Martino hails Lionel Messi performance

Gerardo Martino says a “hurt” Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona to Sunday’s 4-1 win at Sevilla, sending his side top in the tightest La Liga title race for three decades.

Tomas: Messi brace saves Barca

Barca were 1-0 down and struggling at a rainswept Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan, but Messi, 26, provided the free kick which Alexis Sanchez converted for the equaliser, before scoring two impressive long-range efforts to turn the game around.

Pundits before the match had pointed to the Argentina international having gone four games without a goal in open play, while some in Madrid even wondered if his motivation had dropped.

However, Martino told his postmatch news conference that doubting Messi is never a good idea for any opponent.

“I would never risk saying anything too strong against him because, unconsciously, people who say negative things about him just motivate him,” Martino said. “When the pride of the best player in the world is hurt, the next opponent usually suffers, and that’s what happened.”

Andres Iniesta, who in a fine display instigated both counter-attacks from which Messi scored, told Canal Plus that his teammate nearly always delivers when he is needed.

“Messi never goes missing,” Iniesta said. “He is always there. In just a few minutes he can change a game. He does it in nearly every game, and has done it again tonight.”

The result, along with Real Madrid’s 4-2 win over Villarreal and Atletico Madrid’s surprise 2-0 loss at Almeria the previous night, means all three sides are level on 57 points from 23 games -- making it the closest title race since Athletic Bilbao saw off challenges from Barca and Madrid back in the 1982-83 season.

“It was important today to return to the top,” Iniesta said. “You see how things can change in six days. This will give us lots of strength for what is coming. The race is good for everyone, such competition and intensity. We will fight until the end. The important thing is to not lose a lot of points and to improve as a team.”

Cesc Fabregas -- who came off the bench to score Barca's fourth goal with a neat finish late on -- told the club’s official website that it was important to regain top spot having lost it for the first time all season to Atletico last week.

“This was a very important match,” Fabregas said. “When you have a chance to take the top spot you have to take advantage of it. It’s good to get it back so quickly. In the first minutes we didn’t play well. They were very intense, but from the point Alexis scored the game was ours. We had to take [back] the top spot in order to regain confidence.”

The former Arsenal midfielder suggested that the upcoming clashes between the top three sides will decide who wins the title.

“La Liga is very even at the moment,” Fabregas said. “We have to play each other and we have to be strong. We can’t give away any advantages in games that are already going in our favour.”

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