Messi scores to help Barca take overnight Liga league

BARCELONA: Lionel Messi scored an acrobatic goal to help Barcelona earn a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Malaga on Saturday, giving the defending champion the overnight lead of the Spanish league.

Showing no signs of any lingering muscle pain that kept him from playing midweek, Messi made a pass for Luis Suarez to set up Munir El Haddadi's opening goal in the second minute.

After Malaga's pressure led to Juan "Juanpi" Anor leveling, Messi restored Barcelona's advantage for good with a skillful scissor kick after halftime.

Yet despite Messi leading the way in attack, Barcelona still needed goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to ensure they took the three points from La Rosaleda Stadium.

"One bad half, one good one," Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. "We weren't comfortable in the first half and they were well positioned and took advantage of our poor passes. But in the second half we saw the solid team that we are used to."

Barcelona moved one point ahead of Atletico Madrid before it plays Sevilla on Sunday. Barcelona, which also has a game to play, hosts Atletico in the next round.

Third-place Real Madrid will be five points behind Barcelona before visiting Real Betis on Sunday.

Barcelona took its undefeated streak to 24 games overall, and broke a mini slump of two consecutive draws away from Camp Nou in the league.

Barcelona scored on its first attack when El Haddadi, who started for the injured Neymar, got his fourth goal in his last three starts.

The goal was mostly a work of Suarez, who received Messi's pass, held off a defender, and poked a ball under goalie Carlos Kameni that took a deflection to become a perfect pass for El Haddadi to push over the line.

The rest of the first half, however, was dominated by a Malaga that disrupted Barcelona's attack and caused constant trouble for a backline that included regular substitutes Adriano, Aleix Vidal, and Thomas Vermaelen, who coach Luis Enrique replaced with Jeremy Mathieu at halftime. Adriano left in the second half because of injury.

Winter reinforcement Gonzalo "Chory" Castro produced Malaga's first threat when he forced Bravo to push his long strike off the post.

Vermaelen then stumbled to the turf and needed Javier Mascherano to rush back and impede Charles' shot, and shortly after, more pressure forced Mascherano into a bad pass that ended in a quick Malaga attack finished off by Juanpi.

Messi missed a win at Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday after being substituted during last weekend's league match against Bilbao due to "muscle pain." He was subdued against Malaga until he looked set to score against the flow of play, only for Miguel Torres to save his goal-bound strike right before halftime.

That turned out to be a warning shot from the Ballon d'Or winner, who got his goal when he jumped and reached his left leg behind him to latch onto Adriano's cross and volley the ball past Kameni.

That was Messi's 11th league goal and 20th in all competitions this season.

Visibly tired, Malaga still mustered a shot from Ignacio Camacho that Bravo did well to turn back, before Kameni likewise denied Messi in the final minutes.

Later, fourth-place Villarreal visited Espanyol, fifth-place Celta Vigo was at Rayo Vallecano, and Granada hosted Getafe.