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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Messi's moment of magic for milestone 600th goal inspires Barcelona to win over Atletico Madrid

The Primera Liga leaders extend their advantage at top with 1-0 victory at Camp Nou to eight points.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates scoring what would prove to be the only goal of the game. Juan Medina / Reuters
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi celebrates scoring what would prove to be the only goal of the game. Juan Medina / Reuters

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola made his point when he recently said: "Who does Messi play for? Because they are the favourites (for the Uefa Champions League)".

For as long as Barcelona have Lionel Messi, they have a man capable of deciding the tightest matches against the best teams, as he did with the only goal in the Catalans’ 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid last night, extending their lead at the top of the Primera Liga to eight points.

It was his 600th goal of his career and it came in typically spectacular fashion.

Twenty five minutes into the game between first and second in the league, the home team were awarded a free-kick.

As the crowd sang Messi’s name, the Argentinian, who had scored free-kicks in the previous two league games, sized up his options.

Atletico’s defence is the best in Europe and had conceded only 11 goals in 26 league matches this season. Some of the league’s best players constructed the wall – the in-form returnee Diego Costa, tough stalwart Diego Godin, Ghanian defensive midfielder Thomas Partey who had conceded the free-kick to Messi, the wily Koke, and the tall Croatian right-back Sime Vrsaljko.

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All of them jumped high after Messi struck the ball with his left foot from the surface dampened by heavy pre-season rain, a surface as slick as Barca like it for their fast attacking game which Atleti did their best to thwart.

The ball spun and rose, reaching peak height above Atletico’s five-man wall. Still spinning in an arc towards the right, it dropped in height only enough to pass under the crossbar into the corner of the goal.

Even though Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak, the favourite to win this year’s Zamora award for being the Primera Liga’s best goalkeeper, knew what was happening and moved himself towards the ball so that he could touch Messi’s shot, he could not prevent the ball from going into the net to open the scoring.

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The biggest crowd to watch a game of football in the world so far this season - 90,332 – rose to applaud.

It was a fine goal to decide a game between Spain’s leading pair, but was anyone surprised? Messi has done it before and will do it again.

Teammates will tell you that there’s nobody more competitive in training than the 30-year-old, that he is more driven than he has ever been, and that he is fitter and happier four years into a highly productive partnership with his close friend Luis Suarez.

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi spur each other on in their arms race for individual awards and the status of the world’s best player, but it is Suarez’s presence who boosts Messi on a daily basis.

They two South Americans practice and then they practice some more, but Messi varies his technique, too. Against Girona two weeks ago, he anticipated the wall jumping and shot underneath it.

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Atletico were the form team, with five straight wins, while Barca had drawn three of their previous five and seen their lead cut from 11 to five points.

Against Atletico, despiteAntoine Griezmann scoring seven goals in their two previous outings, it was Messi who decided the match and, in all probability, the Primera Liga, as Barcelona remain unbeaten in the league with 11 games of the season remaining.

Everything else, from Diego Simeone’s customary sideline animation, to Andres Iniesta pulling up clutching his hamstring after 22 minutes and leaving the field soon after, paled.

And that’s why Barca, as Guardiola knows, are the favourites for all three competitions they remain in this season.

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