Messi free kick gives Barcelona win v Atletico, extends lead

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi kicks the ball to score during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, March 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi scored from a free kick for his third straight game as Barcelona beat second-place Atletico Madrid 1-0 Sunday to increase its lead at the top of the Spanish league to eight points.

Messi dipped a shot over the wall in the 26th minute to take his league-leading tally to 24 this season and 32 in all competitions.

It was Messi's sixth goal from a free kick this season, and his third straight with successful free kicks against Girona and Las Palmas.

Barcelona remained undefeated after 27 rounds and dealt Atletico just its second defeat in the league this season.

Atletico coach Diego Simeone said the league was Barcelona's to win.

"The numbers are what they are. Barcelona wouldn't normally lose four or five games in what they have left," Simeone said. "But this is football, and we have to go out there to win the next match and think about how we can continue to improve."

Ernesto Valverde's side now has a comfortable lead with 11 rounds remaining and Barcelona can focus on its round-of-16 second leg match in the Champions League against Chelsea on March 14. Barcelona drew 1-1 in the away leg at Stamford Bridge.

It was not all positive for the Catalan leaders, however, with midfielder Andres Iniesta substituted in the first half due to a hamstring injury in his right leg.

Atletico entered the match with the best defense in La Liga with only 11 goals previously conceded.

But after an early stretch when Atletico neutralized host Barcelona's ball possession, Messi broke through with a perfectly stroked free kick that he set up by earning a foul from Thomas Partey.

Messi's curling left-footed strike gave Jan Oblak little chance. The Atletico goalkeeper got his fingertips to the ball, but it was not nearly enough to keep it from going in.

"There is no player like Messi in the world," Valverde said. "Obviously there are several matches left, but we have taken a step forward."

Barcelona's most difficult matches should be away at Sevilla and at home against third-place Real Madrid and fourth-place Valencia.

Iniesta walked off the pitch in the 36th minute. The 33-year-old midfielder had tried to play on after going down around 10 minutes before when he grabbed his right thigh.

The hosts continued to press for a second goal, however, and Philippe Coutinho twice wiggled clear in the box to test Oblak.

Needing to spark an attack that had produced nothing through the first hour, Simeone replaced defender Sime Vrsaljko and holding midfielder Gabi Fernandez with forwards Angel Correa and Kevin Gameiro.

The additions to strike pair Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa finally made Barcelona work in defense, although goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was never seriously threatened.

The closest Atletico came to scoring was a goal by Gameiro that was disallowed when Costa was ruled offside when he set him up late.

Prior to kickoff, Camp Nou fans gave a standing ovation before a minute's silence in tribute to former Barcelona player Enrique Castro "Quini," who died from a heart attack on Tuesday.




Levante fired coach Juan Lopez Muniz following a 1-1 draw with Espanyol that left it in danger of falling into the relegation zone.

The club said reserve team coach Paco Lopez will take over until the end of the season.

Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez was hospitalized after he lost consciousness after knocking heads with another player during the match.

Leo Baptistao's injury-time goal snatched a point for Espanyol.