x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Barcelona get Messi but rally to 3-1 win over Almeria

The Spanish leaders were down to the last-placed rivals but Messi erases the defeat and helps maintain an eight-point advantage.

BARCELONA // Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona rallied for a 3-1 win over last-place Almeria in the Spanish league to maintain their eight-point advantage over second-place Real Madrid, who beat Athletic Bilbao 3-0.

Almeria took the lead in the 50th when Miguel "Corona" Garcia scored on a counterattack, but Messi equalised from the penalty spot three minutes later and in the 64th served a corner kick for Thiago Alcantara to head in.

Messi added his league-best 29th goal - one more than Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo - in injury time.

At San Mames stadium, Madrid winger Angel Di Maria earned two spot kicks that Kaka converted in the 14th and 54th. Ronaldo came on as a second-half substitute, and capped the win in the 70th on a counterattack.

"Madrid is going to fight for the league to the very end, until it is not mathematically possible, because that's the way we have been taught," said Madrid captain Iker Casillas.

After Madrid host Barcelona next weekend in La Liga, the pair meet in the Copa del Rey final four days later. And with both holding commanding leads heading into the second legs of their respective Champions League quarter-final, they are likely to meet twice more in the semis.

Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, put Bojan Krkic, Thiago and Gabi Milito in the starting lineup to rest some players for Tuesday's Champions League match at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine.

The Catalan club owned 85 percent of the possession in the first 10 minutes at Camp Nou stadium, but were sluggish in attack.

David Villa made an early entrance for the injured Bojan at the half-hour mark, and Barcelona began to push Almeria deep into their area as the short passing game began to click.

Messi soon tore through the defence before laying off for Maxwell, who misfired, and the Argentina star drew a pair of saves from goalkeeper Diego Alves before the halftime whistle.

Villa hit the post three minutes before Almeria forward Pablo Piatti laid off for Corona to beat goalkeeper Jose Pinto.

But Almeria coach Roberto Olabe's hopes of an upset in his debut soon faded when Villa was fouled in the area by Alves and Messi converted the penalty.

Villa drew a diving save from Alves, and Pedro sent the rebound into the side of the net as the hosts pressed for the lead that soon arrived through Thiago's header.

Messi then took advantage of an error by Almeria defender Marcelo Silva to chip Alves two minutes into injury time.

The double brought the two-time FIFA player of the year's season total to 47 goals, matching a club record shared by himself from last season and Ronaldo from 1996-97.

Madrid coach Jose Mourinho experimented with his starting 11 by moving Pepe up into midfield to make way for a rare appearance by Argentine Ezequiel Garay in the center of defence, as Madrid easily shook off last week's home loss to Sporting Gijon by dominating throughout.

Di Maria flashed a shot past the far post 10 minutes before he raced unmarked into the area and was cut down by Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. Kaka, who has struggled with injuries all season, perfectly placed his shot into the lower left corner of the net.

Gonzalo Higuain had a pair of excellent opportunities to double Madrid's advantage in his first start since returning from injury. But the striker lacked the precision to beat Iraizoz one-on-one in the 26th, and two minutes later missed an empty net with a long-range strike.

Di Maria continued to expose Bilbao's defence, hitting the side netting from close range and barely missing with a lob before the 40-minute mark.

The visitors soon made it 2-0 when Di Maria dribbled into the area and was pulled down by Bilbao defender Xavier Castillo. Kaka sent the penalty down the middle after Iraizoz dove early to one side.

Madrid took complete control and Ronaldo, who came on for Higuain in the 62nd, silenced the crowd for good when he got behind the defence, cut back and beat Iraizoz with a right-footer.

"Maybe people did not believe in the starting 11 (today), but it responded and we have earned three important points thanks to those who do not habitually play," Casillas said.