Barcelona narrowed the gap to LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid to five points as Lionel Messi’s second-half double helped them to a 3-0 win over Elche.
Ronald Koeman’s men had missed a chance to take advantage of Atletico’s slip-up against Levante at the weekend when they were held at home by struggling Cadiz.
They were not at their best on Wednesday in a clash with another relegation-threatened side in Elche, but Messi’s delightful double and a stylish Jordi Alba effort secured a crucial win.
Barca remain third in the table having played a game more than Atletico, whose lead over second-placed Real Madrid is just three points.
3 – Top three players from the top five European league with the most goals in 2021 in all comps:
13 – LIONEL MESSI
12 – Robert Lewandowski
10 – Erling Braut Haaland
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 24, 2021
Francisco Trincao forced Edgar Badia into a close-range save in the second minute and, after Lucas Boye had spurned a gilt-edged chance at the other end, the Portugal international was denied a stunning goal by the Elche goalkeeper.
Trincao jinked past two Elche defenders after latching on to a pass from Messi, only to see Badia produce a fine diving save with his left hand.
Badia was required again to keep out Frenkie de Jong’s header from a floated Messi free-kick, the frustration clear among Koeman and his players as parity was preserved.
That parity lasted just three minutes into the second half, Messi’s shot squirming into the net despite Badia getting a hand to it following a superb flicked return pass from Martin Braithwaite.
What does it mean? Messi provides much-needed lift
The malaise that appeared to loom over Barca against Cadiz in the wake of their 4-1 Champions League loss to Paris Saint-Germain extended into much of the first half here.
But it gave way in the second to a vintage Messi performance. The odds are still firmly stacked against Barca in the league and in Europe, but the display after the restart should be cause for some optimism.
Messi moves ahead of Lewandowski
With his brace, Messi has now scored 13 goals in all competitions in 2021, that is the most of any player in Europe’s top-five leagues, his second seeing him move ahead of Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich.
It’s tough to single out many Barca players for criticism after a routine win but, while his midfield mate De Jong exerted significant influence, Miralem Pjanic was quiet by comparison, failing to play a single key pass.
Barca will have a much tougher test at Sevilla on Saturday, a day before Elche visit Granada.
Messi’s second was similarly aesthetically pleasing, De Jong finding him at the end of the slaloming run before the Argentine delicately dinked the ball over Badia.
And the game was put beyond any doubt in the 73rd minute when Braithwaite nodded Messi’s excellent cross-field ball into the path of Alba to dispatch with an acrobatic effort.
The scoreline could have been made more emphatic late on, but substitute Antoine Griezmann cracked the crossbar from Sergino Dest’s low cross.