Barcelona reclaimed top spot in La Liga with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao that applied pressure on title-rivals Real Madrid.
Substitute Ivan Rakitic came off the bench and broke 71 minutes of Bilbao resistance with his first goal of the season as the champions bounced back from Friday’s goalless draw at Sevilla in unconvincing fashion.
Bilbao created the better chances in a frantic first period at the Nou Camp but were guilty of letting their challenge fizzle out after the break.
Lionel Messi came close to registering his 700th career goal twice in a brilliant individual performance and youngster Ansu Fati struck the post late on.
But Rakitic’s strike proved enough as Quique Setien’s side piled the pressure on Real ahead of their match with Mallorca on Wednesday. Bilbao remain 10th.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen (6), Semedo (6), Lenglet (6), Pique (7), Alba (7), Busquets (7), Arthur (5), Vidal (6), Griezmann (5), Suarez (5), Messi (8).
Subs: Rakitic (8), Braithwaite (6), Puig (7), Fati (7).
Athletic Bilbao: Unai Simon (7), De Marcos (7), Nunez (6), Yeray (6), Balenziaga (7), Unai Lopez (6), Vesga (6), Lekue (7), Sancet (6), Cordoba (5), Williams (7).
Subs: Muniain (6), Dani Garcia (6), Raul Garcia (5), Villalibre (5).
Man of the Match: Lionel Messi
How Barca returned to La Liga summit
The pressure was on Barcelona to revive their title challenge after surrendering first place to eternal rivals Real Madrid over the weekend.
Bilbao had won the previous two encounters between the two sides this season in La Liga and the Copa del Rey with last minute goals, but Gaizka Garitano’s side almost struck early when Unai Lopez’s in-swinging cross was fumbled by Marc-Andre ter Stegen inside four minutes.
That early scare lit a fire under Messi, who took it on himself to lead the Barca charge, dropping deep to create chances for his toothless attacking partners Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann.
- Antoine Griezmann and Arthur were recalled as Barcelona made two changes from the goalless draw at Sevilla.
- Gaizka Garitano made six changes from the victory over Celta Vigo, as Oscar de Marcos, Yeray Alvarez, Mikel Balenziaga, Mikel Vesga, Inigo Lekue and Oihan Sancet returned.
Inaki Williams lashed an effort into the side-netting and before Yeray Alvarez headed a glorious chance wide on 21 minutes with the goal at his mercy.
Griezmann passed up his only opportunity to end a six-game goal drought on 54 minutes, with his tame effort routinely stopped by Unai Simon.
The Frenchman came off on 64 minutes, with Rakitic and Fati entering the fray, and it took just seven minutes for the Croatian to settle the contest.
Bilbao played themselves into trouble for the first time at the back, failing to clear their lines on two occasions as Messi pounced on the loose ball and diverted it into the path of Rakitic, who lifted the opener over the goalkeeper.
Messi went close on two occasions but missed the chance to register his landmark 700th career goal before Fati fired a rebound against the base of the post from six yards after Arturo Vidal’s volley drew another fine save from the impressive Bilbao goalkeeper.
Man of the Match – Lionel Messi
His 700th career goal may have eluded him, but it was another mesmeric performance from the Argentine.
That landmark goal would surely have come had Messi had support from his mis-firing strike partners, both of whom failed to shoulder the burden of reviving Barcelona’s title challenge.
Messi was forced to occupy a deep-lying midfield role with Barca lacking creativity, and when the goal came, it came as no surprise to see him involved.
Without him, Barcelona may well have gift-wrapped the La Liga title to Real Madrid but with him, their name may stay on the trophy just yet.
Barcelona travel to Celta Vigo on Saturday at 4pm, while Bilbao host Mallorca on Saturday at 1pm.
La Liga: Atletico move third
Atletico Madrid climbed into third spot following a narrow 1-0 victory at mid-table Levante.
Diego Simeone’s visitors were reliant on an early own goal from Levante defender Bruno Gonzalez to climb above Sevilla in their quest for a place in next season’s Champions League.
Thomas Partey also had a second-half goal disallowed for the visitors, who have now taken 10 points from a possible 12 since the league resumed.
Elsewhere, fifth-placed Getafe had to settle for a point at Real Valladolid. Jaime Mata put the high-flying visitors ahead but Enes Unal equalised from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time.
Serie A: Napoli on the march
In Italy, sixth-placed Napoli boosted their hopes of European qualification with a 2-0 victory at Verona.
Arkadiusz Milik’s 10th Serie A goal of the season and a late strike from substitute Hirving Lozano earned success for Gennaro Gattuso’s Coppa Italia winners.
Parma remain in hot pursuit of Gattuso’s men following an Andreas Cornelius hat-trick during an emphatic 4-1 win at relegation-threatened Genoa.
Former Cardiff striker Cornelius put the visitors in total control with his treble, before Dejan Kulusevski completed the scoring late on after substitute Iago Falque had reduced the deficit with a penalty.
Domenico Criscito missed a spot-kick for the hosts when they trailed 1-0.
Elsewhere, Andrea Belotti claimed a first-half winner as Torino beat Udinese 1-0, while second-bottom SPAL slipped closer to relegation after a dramatic injury-time strike from Giovanni Simeone earned a 1-0 success for Cagliari.