Madrid: Barcelona ensured they will be at least a point clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga when they host their arch rivals in next weekend’s ‘Clasico’ after Lionel Messi struck twice in a 2-0 win at Basque minnows Eibar on Saturday.
Barca leapfrogged stuttering Real, who host Levante on Sunday, into first place last weekend and produced another dominant performance inspired by the talismanic Messi to move on to 65 points with 11 games left.
With Xavi and Andres Iniesta on the bench, Messi captained the side and put the Catalan giants ahead in the 31st minute at Eibar`s Ipurua stadium when he converted a penalty after Borja Ekiza handled the Argentina forward’s shot.
Messi made it 2-0 with a rare header from an Ivan Rakitic corner 10 minutes into the second half, his 32nd La Liga goal of the campaign and his 43rd in all competitions, two more than he managed in the whole of an injury-disrupted 2013-14.
Two goals clear of Real`s Cristiano Ronaldo as La Liga`s leading marksman this term, Messi has scored at least twice in 120 matches for club and country, 112 for Barcelona and eight for Argentina.
To their credit, Eibar, playing in La Liga for the first time this season, refused to capitulate to their illustrious visitors and forward Federico Piovaccari struck a shot against the crossbar late on.
"It was a very good, solid performance against a team that caused us a lot of problems," Barca coach Luis Enrique told a news conference.
"We will go into the game (against Real) as leaders and in perfect shape."
Messi’s scintillating recent form bodes well for Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 return match at home to Manchester City when Barca will defend a 2-1 lead from last month`s first leg.
Barca`s game at Eibar was also noteworthy for midfielder Xavi making a club record-extending 750th appearance when he came on as a second-half substitute for Rakitic.
La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, by contrast, are struggling for goals before last season`s beaten finalists seek to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Bayer Leverkusen in Europe’s elite club competition on Tuesday.
Atletico surrendered third place in La Liga to Valencia when they had Miranda sent off for a brutal challenge in first-half added time and were held to a 0-0 draw at mid-table Espanyol.
The Madrid side had the better chances at the Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona before centre back Miranda was shown a straight red card when he felled Abraham with an arm as the pair jumped for a bouncing ball.
Forward Fernando Torres had forced a fine save from Espanyol goalkeeper Kiko Casilla in the 11th minute and midfielder Koke fired narrowly wide a minute later.
Playing with a man fewer in the second period, Atletico struggled to create scoring opportunities but Raul Garcia came close to breaking the deadlock 13 minutes from time when his low shot was brilliantly tipped away by Casilla.
Atletico, without a win in their last four games, have 56 points in fourth.
Valencia have 57 after Friday`s 2-0 success at home to Deportivo La Coruna while fifth-placed Sevilla (49) can close to within four points of Atletico by beating Elche on Sunday.
Athletic Bilbao followed up last weekend`s 1-0 win at home to Real with a 2-1 victory at Celta Vigo, despite having Mikel San Jose sent off five minutes from time, that put them three points clear of ninth-placed Espanyol.
Rayo Vallecano climbed to 11th when they fought back from a goal down to win 3-1 at home to 19th-placed Granada thanks to two goals from in-form forward Alberto Bueno and a late Adrian Embarba strike.