MADRID: Lionel Messi is poised to collect the Ballon D'Or accolade on Tuesday and the Argentine showed why with a mesmerising display to help Barcelona defeat Real Madrid 1-0 in a sizzling 'El Clasico' at Camp Nou on Sunday.
Substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the winning goal on 56 minutes but with the world watching on Messi stole the show with his his mazy runs, clever turns and incredible close control all the more impressive given that he was a doubt for the match with a thigh injury.
Messi, still only 22, scored in the previous two Clasicos - which finished 2-0 and 6-2 in Barca's favour - but could not cap his stellar display with a goal with Iker Casillas denying him with a wonder save in the closing stages.
"I came off against Athletic Bilbao as a precaution but came back tonight and fortunately we got the right result," said the softly-spoken Messi.
"We couldn't find space in the first half but in the second half we got better and the result we wanted.
"The win over Inter Milan (2-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday) was important for us to stay in the competition and now we have beaten Real Madrid who are a top side."
Champions Barca now lead Real by two points at the summit and can stretch that to five points with victory over Xerez on Wednesday in a match brought forward due to Barca's World Club Championship commitments in Abu Dhabi in mid-December.
Treble winners Barca are unbeaten in the league since the penultimate day of last season and lie top of the table but goalkeeper Victor Valdes, who produced a crucial save from Cristiano Ronaldo, said there was no room for complacency.
"Real played on the counter attack at times but with real quality," said Valdes.
"The Spanish league is the best in the world and complicated to win. It is not just Real Madrid there are other such as Sevilla."
Midfielder Xavi, one of four Barca players shortlisted for the Ballon D'Or, paid tribute to Real and saluted his team-mates for a determined defensive display.
"It was a physical game but a great spectacle," said Xavi. "Real have a great team as well and a lot of talent up front.
"Madrid are always a competitive team. In all my years in football they have always had a team that can compete at the highest level.
"It was a great defensive display from the whole team to keep them out and get a very important win."