Barca back on track
Luis Enrique badly needed a good result after reports surfaced of a falling out with club talisman Messi.
MADRID - Barcelona stayed hard on the heels of La Liga leaders Real Madrid when Lionel Messi scored one goal, created two and conceded a penalty in a 3-1 win at home to champions Atletico Madrid on Sunday that eased pressure on under-fire coach Luis Enrique.
Looking to bounce back after last weekend's defeat at Real Sociedad, Barca started strongly and took the lead in the 12th minute when Messi's trickery opened up the Atletico defence and the ball fell to Neymar to stab home.
Messi created a second for the dominant home side on 35 minutes when he raced into the middle from the right wing and slipped the ball through for Luis Suarez to stroke the ball past Atletico goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya.
Atletico hauled themselves back into the match when Jesus Gamez went down under a challenge from Messi in the penalty area in the 56th minute and Mario Mandzukic blasted his spot kick past Claudio Bravo.
It was the first time Messi has conceded a penalty for club or country in his 10-year professional career.
The goal lifted the visitors but Barca made the game safe three minutes from time when Messi took advantage of a lucky deflection to fire in from close range, the Argentina captain's 16th goal of the campaign.
Real, who have a game in hand over their closest rivals, have 42 points from 17 matches following Saturday's 3-0 win at home to Espanyol, with Barca on 41 in second place and Atletico third on 38.
Luis Enrique badly needed a good result after reports surfaced of a falling out with club talisman Messi that prompted widespread speculation his days as coach were numbered.
Barca have been in something of an institutional crisis in recent weeks following the confirmation of a Fifa transfer ban and the subsequent sacking of sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta.
However, beating Atletico, who pipped Barca to the La Liga title and knocked them out of the Champions League last season, was exactly the tonic they needed.
"The win was important," Neymar told Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
The Brazil captain, who suffered a gash to his ankle in the first half but was able to play on, insisted there was no crisis at Barca and he and his team mates needed to focus on playing.
"There is no problem," he added. "It is all behind us and we are united."
Atletico now need to regroup for Thursday's King's Cup last 16, second leg at holders Real, when they will seek to defend a 2-0 lead from last week's first leg at the Calderon.
The winners of the tie will almost certainly meet Barca in the quarter-finals as they have a 5-0 advantage ahead of their second leg at Elche on Thursday.
"The first half was poor and cost us and we were conceding a lot of chances that we wouldn't normally," Moya told Canal Plus.
"In the second, we wanted to stand up to them, score a goal to get back in the game, and that's what happened but the 3-1 killed it off," he added.
Sevilla climbed above Valencia into fourth in La Liga thanks to a 2-0 win at Almeria, while Athletic Bilbao's struggles continued when they were beaten 2-1 at home by lowly Elche.
It was only a third win of the season for Elche and lifted them off the bottom above Granada, who drew 1-1 at home to Real Sociedad.