BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona took a big step toward successfully defending its Spanish league title when Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez led its fightback to beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 on Saturday.
Messi and Suarez scored first-half goals to respond to Atletico’s great start, when Jorge "Koke" Resurreccion netted 10 minutes into the match at the Camp Nou.
Atletico then self-destructed when Filipe Luis earned a direct red card for sticking his studs into Messi’s knee seconds before halftime. The Ballon d’Or holder writhed on the turf for a few moments but was soon on his feet.
Diego Godin left Atletico down two men from the 65th with a second booking for a second hard foul on Suarez.
Barcelona, which has a game in hand at Sporting Gijon on Feb. 17, opened a three-point lead over second-place Atletico.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone said, "They have players who decide games, a three-point lead, and a game to play. The league is long, but they don't stumble very much."
Third-place Real Madrid is seven points adrift before hosting Espanyol on Sunday.
The highly charged match between the past two league champions, who started level on points atop the table, promised to be a fight between Barcelona's spectacular attack led by Messi and an Atletico defence anchored by goalkeeper Jan Oblak, who had conceded a league-low eight goals and only three away from home.
Once again, it was Messi who snuffed out Atletico's promising initial push before Barcelona won the day and extended its undefeated streak to 26 consecutive matches.
"We had the same mentality we always do, attack," said Barcelona coach Luis Enrique, who improved to six wins in as many matches against Atletico. "Mistakes by us led to their goal, but it helped us wake up, and we played a very good 15-minute stretch. We pushed a very good team like Atletico into their area and turned it around."
Despite missing two months with injury, Messi recorded his 21st goal in all competitions this season, while Suarez's 31st goal overall took his league-leading tally to 19.
To make things worse for Atletico, which was eliminated from the Copa del Rey this week, winter signing Augusto Fernandez was carried off on a stretcher in the 76th with an apparent left leg injury. Simeone said Fernandez will undergo tests on Sunday.
Simeone opted to reinforce his starting 11 with Fernandez and leave struggling strikers Luciano Vietto and Jackson Martinez on the bench, playing only Antoine Griezmann up front.
His decision paid dividends at the start. Koke was left unmarked to sweep in Yannick Carraso's cross, following a routine throw-in that caught Barcelona off-guard.
Atletico bossed the first half hour - with Fernandez almost adding another goal - until Suarez earned a foul for Godin's first booking, and finally forced Oblak to make a save.
Moments later, Oblak could do nothing to stop Messi from ruining his run of five consecutive clean sheets when Jordi Alba took his time to find him in a crowded area. Messi did the rest by slicing a ball just inside the post to make it 1-1.
Suarez took full advantage of Atletico's first dip in concentration in defence in the 38th. Dani Alves lobbed a long ball forward for Suarez, who used his big frame to fend off Jose Jimenez before slotting the ball under Oblak.
Down a goal and a man to start the second half, Atletico looked to Carrasco again to try and grab a lifeline. The attacking midfielder followed up an electric run when moments later he crossed for Griezmann, only for Barcelona goalie Claudio Bravo to make a superb save with his foot to keep out his point-blank volley.
Godin's sending off for another foul on Uruguay teammate Suarez quashed any thoughts of an Atletico rally, but a late free kick saw Oblak join the fray in hopes of a last-gasp goal.
"I am proud of my team," Simeone said. "It kept its character throughout. You can win, or you can lose, and I choose to lose this way any day. They had two chances and scored on both, and even playing with nine we put a late scare into them."
Elsewhere, Bruno Soriano converted a second-half penalty as fourth-place Villarreal edged Granada 1-0 to pull level on points with Madrid.
Inaki Williams gave Athletic Bilbao a 1-0 win at Getafe, while Malaga won at Eibar 2-1.
Real Betis visited Real Sociedad late.