Lionel Messi, Barcelona answer Atletico's title challenge, re-establish breathing room
BARCELONA -- Three thoughts from Camp Nou on leaders Barcelona's 1-0 win over second-place Atletico Madrid in La Liga.
1. Barca creep closer to the league title
The 600th goal of Lionel Messi's career was the difference between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid on Sunday as Ernesto Valverde's side extended their lead at the top of La Liga to eight points and edged ever closer to a third title in four years.
Barca had seen an 11-point lead over Atletico cut down to just five points following three draws in their last five league games. Valverde admitted it made winning this weekend's game especially important, given a loss could have seen their advantage hacked down to two points.
But given they're unbeaten in the league this season, a defeat was perhaps always a long shot. They're now without a loss in Spain's top flight in 34 games, dating back to last season, and remain unbeaten through 27 games in the current campaign.
It will take a minor miracle for them to stumble from here.
Atletico had come into the game with the better momentum. Diego Simeone's side had scored nine goals in their last two league outings, but they didn't even come close to adding to that tally in the first half. Barca pinned them back from the off and while they didn't create any glaring chances in the opening 20 minutes, they rarely let their visitors have a whiff of the ball.
The breakthrough eventually arrived in the 26th minute. Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez linked well to create a chance and when the ball dropped to Messi, he was taken out by Thomas Partey. Messi dusted himself off to take the free kick, somehow placing the ball beyond the reach of Jan Oblak, who couldn't have done much more.
Coutinho came close to doubling Barca's lead as the biggest crowd of the season at Camp Nou came alive, but both of his shots were too close to Oblak.
Barca suffered a setback just before half-time, though, when Andres Iniesta was forced off with an injury and replaced by Andre Gomes. Until then, Iniesta had controlled large parts of the game and his disappearance was part of the reason Atletico were able to work their way into the game after the break.
Simeone's substitutions were attacking, with Angel Correa and Kevin Gameiro brought into the action. But despite finally getting close to Barca's goal, Marc-Andre ter Stegen was rarely called into action. His first save was from a looping Saul Niguez header, but he'd have looked foolish if he'd let it slip under his bar.
As the game stretched, Suarez had a goal ruled out for offside, a Messi shot was deflected over and Sergio Busquets was brilliantly denied by Oblak.
Atletico, too, had a goal ruled out as they sought an equaliser that would have at least kept them on Barca's coattails. They didn't find it, though, and the league title looks set for Camp Nou.
2. Messi is Atletico's scourge again
Messi. Again. Atletico must be sick of the sight of him. He's scored more against them than any other side, excluding Sevilla, and his first-half free kick was his 28th goal against them 36 games. It was also his third goal from a free kick in as many games. Against Girona, he went under the wall and against Las Palmas, he went over it. He opted for the latter option here.
As well as being the 600th goal of his career, it was also his 24th in the league this season. No one has scored more than him -- with 12 assists, no one has created more, either -- and if Barca are going to regain the title they lost to Real Madrid last season, Messi, once again, is the main reason why.
Suarez's goals have also helped -- he's up to 20 in the league -- and Coutinho showed signs of magic against Atletico, but Messi is still the man. Perhaps the highlight of his performance here, goal aside, was the way he found a way out of a box built by three visiting defenders. The only shame was the resulting shot was straight at Oblak.
3. Griezmann and Costa go missing
Barca had the "MSN" (Messi, Suarez, Neymar) and Real Madrid still have the "BBC" (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo), but there's been a new acronym-powered frontline in La Liga since January: "AG-DC". Antoine Griezmann. Diego Costa.
Since Costa's return from Chelsea in January, Atletico's fortunes have changed. They turned up at Camp Nou having won their last eight games in all competitions. In their last two league games alone they had scored nine goals, with Griezmann scoring seven of them.
However, the duo didn't get a look in during the first half. With their side stuck in their own half, they didn't even have scraps to feed off. Costa has still never scored against Barca and Griezmann has still never scored at Camp Nou. Valverde was asked on Saturday if that will change next season when the Frenchman is dressed in Barca colours. He politely refused to indulge the Catalan journalist's trick question.
What didn't change was Atletico's record against Barca. They are now winless at the Catalan club in all competitions since February 2006. But what's worse, they're now eight points behind them with just 11 games to be played.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.