BARCELONA • On paper and on form, Atletico Madrid appeared to be a match for hosts Barcelona in their LaLiga summit clash on Sunday. But Lionel Messi scored his third free kick in consecutive league games and appeared to settle the title fight in the Catalan side's favour.
As Atletico coach Diego Simeone put it, had the five-time world player of the year been on his team, the 1-0 score at the Nou Camp would have been reversed.
Instead, Atletico, who went into the game on the back of eight straight wins, had their surge halted by Barcelona, who suffered three draws in five games but now have 69 points to extend their lead to eight with 11 games left to play.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said: "It isn't the same to be eight (points ahead), than two. It isn't definitive, obviously, but we have taken a step."
Argentinian talisman Messi again made the difference, his bending first-half strike worthy of winning any contest and taking his career tally to 600 goals, 539 for Barca and 61 for Argentina.
It was his fifth dead-ball goal this year and more than any other player in Europe this season.
"If we remove the shirt of Messi and put the one of Atletico on him, Atletico wins 1-0," Simeone said.
Lionel Messi scored his 600th career goal against Atletico Madrid. It was his 539th strike for Barcelona, along with 61 he has netted for his country Argentina.
His opposite number Valverde said: "Messi is a player like no other in the world."
But Barcelona were left ruing an injury to captain Andres Iniesta, who had to be substituted after 34 minutes with what the club confirmed was a thigh strain.
He has eight more days to recover before the Champions League second leg of the last-16 tie against Chelsea.
"Andres is an unrivalled player, like Messi, he is very difficult to replace," Valverde said. "Let's see the damage. We hope it is not too much."
The build-up to this contest, labelled "The Grand Final" by the Spanish press, was driven by talk of a Barcelona dip, with Atletico primed to move within two points.
But Simeone's counter-attacking strategy failed to pay off and in the end, the scoreline could have been more emphatic for the hosts.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS