MADRID (AFP) - Lionel Messi saved Barcelona from another embarrassing result by scoring the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over lowly Levante, while Real Sociedad returned to the top of La Liga on Sunday (Dec 13).
Messi struck with 14 minutes remaining of a lacklustre display from Barca at the Camp Nou which will do little to ease fan fears following their midweek 3-0 hammering at the hands of Juventus in the Champions League.
Ronald Koeman's side are still way off the pace in the title race, nine points behind Sociedad, who reclaimed first place despite only drawing 1-1 with Eibar.
Barcelona do, however, have two games in hand on the Basque outfit.
Atletico are level on 26 points with Sociedad and also have two games in hand while Real Madrid are now just three points behind the leaders having played one less after beating their local rivals 2-0 on Saturday.
Villarreal are four points off the lead in fourth after drawing 1-1 at Real Betis, who are one point behind Barca in ninth.
"The team are working well, they gave the maximum," said Koeman. "We still lack a little confidence in ourselves, in our game, but we had a lot of chances, and I have nothing to say about the attitude of the players in this match."
Barca managed to force several saves from Aitor Fernandez, with the Levante goalkeeper doing particularly well to push away a stinging shot from Martin Braithwaite in the 16th minute and Antoine Griezmann's header five minutes later.
However, the best chance of the opening period fell to Jorge de Frutos in the 12th minute, the Spaniard somehow shooting straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen after the ball broke kindly for him right in front of goal.
Messi saves the day
Barca continued to dominate possession in the second half but if anything, looked less threatening, with Fernandez being called into action largely for shots that were hit straight at him.
However, with Levante looking more comfortable than a side of their level should at the Camp Nou, Messi saved his team with a clinical finish off the post after collecting Frenkie de Jong's pass.
It was hardly the sort of display to honour Sergio Busquets' 593rd appearance for the club, which takes him level at fourth of all time for matches played for Barca alongside Carles Puyol.
However, the three points are a boost ahead of the visit of Sociedad on Wednesday, which is then followed up by another home clash with Valencia on Saturday.
Earlier, Ander Barrenetxea gave Real Sociedad the lead in San Sebastian with a thumping strike in the 20th minute, but Sergi Enrich turned home with 25 minutes remaining to send his team 10th on 15 points.
Sociedad would have had a bigger gap between them and Atletico had Igor Zubeldia's 80th-minute tap-in not been ruled out by VAR for an extremely tight offside.
Sunday's draw was Sociedad's sixth in as many games in all competitions, and came after another 1-1 draw at Napoli on Thursday, which saw them squeeze into the last 32 of the Europa League.
Granada won 1-0 at Elche in Sunday's other match, a win that keeps them one point ahead of Barcelona.