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Messi slump down to rivals - Martino

Gerardo Martino says he is happy that Lionel Messi responded to critics with the winning goal in Barcelona’s 2-1 La Liga win at home to Athletic Bilbao.

• Ledwith: Barcelona rebound from tough week

Messi’s performances have come under scrutiny after he failed to score as Barcelona were knocked out of the Champions League, slipped to third in La Liga, and then lost the Copa del Rey final during an awful run of three defeats in eight days.

The Argentine responded with a late free-kick on Sunday at the Camp Nou, for his goal not scored from the penalty spot in seven games, sealing three points for Barca and keeping them four points behind La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid with four games still to play and the teams due to meet on the season's final day.

Martino told his post-game news conference that opponents working out how to stop Barca playing had been the reason for the barren spell, while he was happy his fellow countryman had answered his critics on the pitch.

“You must look at how the rivals play,” Martino said. “This is a problem which Barcelona has for a long time. When teams defend with a lot of players close to the area it becomes difficult. I do not believe Messi has changed his way of playing, but he found a game in which he felt better. I did not have to talk [especially] with him, nor will I talk with him next week. We talk about other things. I was happy for his goal, for him, and because the team won.

In Messi’s case, I am happy that he can respond in the way he responded. He has a great advantage, he does not defend himself with his mouth, he defends himself with football. As he does not talk, he does his talking on the pitch. Of each 100 games, 99 he plays well, and he always gives his answers there. What happened this week was a bit hard, so [the goal and win] made me happy.”

Cesc Fabregas has also felt heat from Catalan fans and pundits for his performances over recent weeks, and the ex-Arsenal man was whistled by the Camp Nou crowd when he entered with the game with Bilbao leading 1-0.

The Blaugrana boss declined to discuss the boos directly, but did say that Fabregas always kept his head up and never hid during games.

“I have no opinion about the whistles for Cesc,” Martino said. “He has a strong head and wants to play, he always wants the ball, always shows for it, has no fear of trying things, making mistakes, and trying again. He is known for his bravery.”

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