BARCELONA, Spain — 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 levelling, Messi restored Barcelona’s advantage for good with a skilful scissor kick after halftime.
Yet despite Messi leading the way in attack, Barcelona still needed goalkeeper Claudio Bravo to ensure it took 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 in a highly-anticipated clash between the last two champions.
Third-place Real Madrid will be five points behind Barcelona before visiting Real Betis on Sunday.
Also Saturday, Mateo Musacchio’s 88th-minute header salvaged fourth-place Villarreal a 2-2 draw at Espanyol. Espanyol lost scorers Felipe Caicedo to injury and Gerard Moreno to a second booking after Musacchio’s goal.
Granada almost squandered a two-goal lead before Ruben Rochina’s strike secured a 3-2 win over Getafe, while Rayo Vallecano routed fifth-place Celta Vigo 3-0 to end a nine-round winless run. Both Granada and Rayo provisionally escaped the relegation zone, while Celta fell seven points adrift of the Champions League spots.
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.
But Malaga, which beat and drew with Barcelona last season in their two league meetings, outplayed the visitors for long stretches.
"I take away a feeling that we could have gotten a good result," said Malaga manager Javi Gracia. "Even though they had fewer shots and poorer statistics than we did, they have the players that decided the match."
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 the work of Suarez, who received Messi’s pass, held off a defender, and poked the ball under goalkeeper Carlos Kameni. This 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 Malaga, which disrupted Barcelona’s attack and caused constant trouble for a backline that included regular substitutes Adriano, Aleix Vidal, and Thomas Vermaelen, replaced by Jeremy Mathieu at halftime. Adriano left in the second half because of injury.
"It’s difficult for us to play as poorly we did in the first half, with so many mistakes in our passing," said Luis Enrique. "It was unbelievable that we could score so quickly and yet soon find ourselves in such a horrible situation. We were better in the second half, but still erred in some passes."
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. 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. The goal took his league tally to 11 and his 20th in all competitions this season.