BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi unlocked Sevilla’s defense with a goal and an assist to finally give Barcelona a much-needed victory over a first-class opponent on Saturday.
Messi’s quick feet and vision, Ousmane Dembele’s speed and finishing touch, and a defensive performance that Ronald Koeman called his team’s best of this Spanish league marked the 2-0 win in Seville.
The victory lifted Barcelona past Real Madrid into second place, two points behind leader Atlético Madrid, which has two matches in hand.
Barcelona also halted Sevilla’s climb up the standings by ending its six-round winning streak, keeping Julen Lopetegui’s side in fourth place at eight points off the lead. A win by Sevilla would have moved it ahead of Barcelona and made it a firm title contender.
Equally as important, the victory boosted Barcelona’s hopes of coming back from a 2-0 deficit when it hosts Sevilla next week in the return leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal.
“If we can overturn the tie on Wednesday, our entire season turns around,” Barcelona’s Gerard Pique said. “After playing like this at Sevilla, not giving them a single scoring chance, we are confident that we can do good things this season.”
Barcelona struggled under Ronald Koeman during the coach’s first two months in charge. But the former Barcelona defender has the team unbeaten in 15 straight rounds and on a seven-game winning run away from Camp Nou in the competition.
Still, his team had yet to beat a top rival in any competition -- last week it lost to Paris Saint-Germain 4-1 - until its strong showing at Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium.
Dembele opened the scoring in the 29th minute when Messi played him clear on a quick attack to end Sevilla’s excellent defensive streak of five straight clean sheets in the league.
After Sergiño Dest went close to doubling Barcelona’s lead when he hit the post in the 60th, Messi capped a complete performance by his team with five minutes remaining. The club’s all-time leading scorer, whose future is uncertain, dribbled through the area and beat goalkeeper Yassine Bounou on a second try. It was Messi’s league-leading 19th goal of the season and his 30th career goal against Sevilla.
“The most important thing of the game today was the ambition of the team,” Koeman said. “We were fighting, pressing like a total team. We were really good with the ball, but the mentality to press the opponent for 95 minutes was the key.”
Having failed to beat Sevilla in their two previous meetings this season, Koeman bettered Lopetegui when he switched to a three-man defense and left Antoine Griezmann on the bench to play with two high wing backs.
That left Dembele free to stretch the team with his speed. The midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Pedri and Frenkie de Jong did the rest by not letting Sevilla get close enough to threaten Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
“More than their formation, I think that we did not respond the right way,” Lopetegui said. “Just like when we win, we now have to turn the page quickly and think about the next game.”
Barcelona’s win came at a cost of losing two young players to left leg injuries.
Midfielder Pedri González, one of Koeman’s most used players, hurt a muscle with around 20 minutes remaining.
Center back Ronald Araújo went on as a second-half substitute after returning from a left ankle injury that sidelined him for five games. He lasted fewer than 20 minutes.
Pape Diop broke into tears after he scored a late header to salvage Eibar a 1-1 draw with Huesca. The midfielder said he was overcome by thoughts of his father, who died in December.
Getafe defeated Valencia 3-0 to end a run of six rounds without a victory, while Osasuna won at Alavés 1-0.