Football: Lionel Messi shines as Barcelona survive scare to see off Rayo and retain 7-point lead over Atletico

Barcelona's Lionel Messi vies for the ball with Rayo Vallecano's Santi Comesana during their La Liga match at the Nou Camp in Barcelona on March 9, 2019.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi vies for the ball with Rayo Vallecano's Santi Comesana during their La Liga match at the Nou Camp in Barcelona on March 9, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

BARCELONA (REUTERS) - Lionel Messi created a goal and scored another, as Barcelona came from behind to beat struggling Rayo Vallecano 3-1 at home on Saturday (March 9) and stay seven points clear at the top of the Spanish La Liga table.

Rayo, who have now lost their last 12 games against Barca, took a shock lead midway through the first half when forward Raul de Thomas - who is on loan from Real Madrid - ran past two defenders before arrowing a shot into the bottom corner.

The Madrid side's unlikely lead at the Nou Camp lasted just a quarter of an hour and ended when Messi whipped in a free kick for Gerard Pique to appear unmarked and head home.

Barca won a penalty early in the second half when Luis Suarez was fouled and Messi converted to put the league leaders in front and the Uruguayan forward made sure of the points with a simple finish from close range in the 82nd minute.

Coach Ernesto Valverde started without Ousmane Dembele and Ivan Rakitic but fielded an otherwise first-choice starting XI even with a Champions League last-16 second leg against Lyon coming up on Wednesday.

The win restored Barca's seven-point gap over nearest challengers Atletico Madrid, who earned a 1-0 victory at home to Leganes earlier.

Rayo are 19th in the standings and two points from escaping the drop zone as the pressure mounts on coach Michel.