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Barcelona misfire but Messi proves key as Atletico and Real Madrid stumble

Five thoughts from what seems a very significant weekend of La Liga action.

1. Messi strike gets Barca huge three points

Barcelona coach Luis Enrique took a risk with his team selection for Saturday's trip to Malaga, and it just about paid off in the end -- with Lionel Messi's second half volley bringing a 2-1 win.

Even with defensive leader Gerard Pique suspended, and in-form attacker Neymar not risked due to a reported small hamstring problem, Luis Enrique still left other regulars Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic on the bench.

The patched-up team struggled for long periods, with Thomas Vermaelen, Adriano Correia and Munir El-Haddadi all having very poor games. "It is difficult to remember a first half from us so weak, lots of problems, lots of mistakes," said a relieved Luis Enrique afterwards. "But we managed to get three points when playing badly."

Lionel Messi celebrates after firing Barcelona to victory.

Messi was one of the Barca players who were below their best for long periods of the game, but he did play a role in Munir's early opening goal, and then himself scored the winner -- his first strike away from the Camp Nou in La Liga since September.

"The first half was very difficult, they won all the individual duels," summed up Sergio Busquets. "In the second half we played much better and Leo scored. The three points are very important. Leagues are won in games like these."

2. Coach changed but Madrid's stars still struggling away

Real Madrid's 1-1 draw at Real Betis on Sunday evening showed that the arrival of Zinedine Zidane as coach has not really changed their form away from the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

Madrid had strolled to big home wins in their first two games under their new galactico coach, but this was very different. After Betis attacker Alvaro Cejudo sent a Zidane-style volley into the top corner just seven minutes into the game, the visitors had lots of the ball but lacked cohesion and composure. Their only goal came from Karim Benzema, with replays showing James Rodriguez was offside in the buildup.

Los Blancos now won just one of their last five games away in La Liga, including four under previous coach Rafa Benitez. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in just one of those games -- his team's second late on in a 2-0 win at Eibar back in November. On Sunday, the 30-year-old had had only one shot on target, a close range effort easily smothered by his former clubmate Antonio Adan in the Betis goal.

Zidane claimed afterwards he could not reproach his players for anything -- and pointed out that Betis was "a difficult place to play, with great fans." But, after all the talk of being liberated with Benitez gone, Madrid's big stars were again below par on their travels -- and are now four points behind Barca with a game more played.

3. Griezmann has off-day, Atletico slip up

Atletico Madrid also slipped up in Sunday's 0-0 draw at home to a Sevilla team who played the last half hour with 10 men.

Atletico managed 22 shots -- five on target and two off the woodwork -- but had to settle for one point with Sevilla's young goalkeeper Sergio Rico outstanding.

Antoine Griezmann has often got his side out of such tricky situations through recent months, however the France attacker had an off day -- not hitting the target with any of his five efforts at goal.

Antoine Greizmann of Club Atletico de Madrid reacts after missing a chance to score a goal during the La Liga match against Club Sevilla FC at Vicente Calderon Stadium on January 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Antoine Griezmann rues a missed opportunity.

Fellow forwards Jackson Martinez and Angel Correa made little impact off the bench this time, while Fernando Torres was not even in the squad amid speculation over his future.

Griezmann has 13 La Liga goals so far -- the next highest scorer is winger Yannick Carrasco with just three.

A win would have taken Diego Simeone's side back ahead of Barcelona at the top of the La Liga table, ahead of the two teams' meeting at the Camp Nou on Saturday, but the Colchoneros coach characteristically played down his disappointment afterwards.

"We maintained our lead ahead of Sevilla, a direct rival for third spot," the Argentine said. "So the result is good. We played a complete game, a good game, but could not score."

Inside, Simeone was surely raging at the two points dropped, and the fierce competitor knows he cannot just rely on Griezmann to score every week.

4. Neville really needs a win, and soon

Sunday evening's 1-1 draw at Deportivo La Coruna means Valencia coach Gary Neville is still searching for a first La Liga win after seven attempts.

This never appeared likely at any stage during the game at Riazor, with Depor by far the better team, especially after Lucas Perez's clinically taken 27th-minute opener.

Perez was outstanding and only some questionable offside decisions and poor finishing from his teammates kept the score at 1-0. Right until the 93rd minute, when Los Che captain Alvaro Negredo nodded to head in for the latest of equalisers.

After the game, Neville again praised the character of his players in coming from behind to get a point -- the fifth time in his seven games they have done just that. This time the draw was more down to good fortune, and bad refereeing, however.

The idea that the novice coach could learn the ropes at Spain's fourth biggest club, which has suffered years of turmoil on and off the pitch, looks increasingly like a serious misjudgement from both Neville and Valencia's Singapore-based billionaire owner Peter Lim.

5. Espanyol might copy Villarreal

Espanyol, with new owner Chen Yansheng watching his first game since a takeover completed last week, aim to be in the Champions League within three years. That goal looks a long way away after Saturday evening's 2-2 draw at home to Espanyol, which means they have just two two points from their last five games and currently sit four points off the drop zone.

If Chen is serious about mixing it with the big boys, then avoiding the Valencia example and instead studying Villarreal's model of how run a La Liga club would be a good idea.

Marcelino's well balanced side hung in against Espanyol and got a late -- possibly undeserved -- equaliser to remain well placed to return to the Champions League next term.

The Yellow Submarine are now nine games undefeated in La Liga, with a seven point gap over fifth placed Celta Vigo -- who were beaten 3-0 at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday. Eibar, beaten 5-2 at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday lunchtime, are a further point back in sixth.

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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