BARCELONA, Jan 12 (AP): Lionel Messi scored one goal and set up two more for Neymar and Luis Suarez as Barcelona beat defending champion Atletico Madrid 3-1 on Sunday, rejuvenating its Spanish league title bid amid a chaotic week for the Catalan club.
Barcelona strikers (from left) Luis Suarez and Neymar celebrate with Lionel Messi after his goal against Atletico at Camp Nou in Barcelona on Sunday.
Stifled by Atletico in six winless meetings last season, Messi shredded its vaunted defence with run after run, passing for Neymar to score in the 12th minute and for Suarez to double the lead at Camp Nou in the 35th.
Messi was guilty of also setting up Atletico’s goal in the 57th when he fouled Jesus Gamez in the area, allowing Mario Mandzukic to score from the spot.
But the star forward finished off the visitors with a goal three minutes from time for his 25th goal in as many games this season.
Barcelona took control of second place, one point behind leader Real Madrid. Atletico in third trails the pacesetters by four. Madrid still has a game in hand.
Elsewhere, Sevilla tightened the race at the top with a 2-0 win at Almeria thanks to goals by Vicente Iborra and Jorge “Coke” Andujar, moving into fourth place two points behind Atletico.
Elche moved off last place with a 2-1 win at Athletic Bilbao in its first victorious visit to the Basque club after 20 trips.
Granada fell to the bottom of the standings after a 14th straight game without a win following its 1-1 draw at home with Real Sociedad.
Eight months ago Atletico won the league title in a winner-takes-all finale at Camp Nou, whose fans ended up honouring the victors while jeering their own team.
On Sunday, it was “Messi! Messi!” that rang out after Suarez’s goal.
Barcelona has had one of its most tumultuous weeks in recent memory after it lost its appeal of a one-year transfer ban for violating FIFA’s rules for registering youth players.
That blow was followed by the firing of its sports director on Monday and president Josep Bartomeu announcing the club would hold early elections after this season.
Rumors were also swirling that coach Luis Enrique could be the next to go, including speculation that his relationship with Messi had soured.
But Messi and his teammates pushed those troubles aside for its second lopsided win in four days after thrashing Elche 5-0 in the Copa del Rey on Thursday.
Messi was awarded a trophy by the Spanish league before kickoff for breaking Telmo Zarra’s all-time scoring record in November that had stood at 251 goals since 1955.
Messi then proceeded to wreck havoc from his spot on the right side of the attack with repeated dribbles into the thick of Atletico’s area.
He unlocked the defence with a burst of speed before his short cross eventually fell to Neymar after Suarez couldn’t control it for the Brazil striker to toe past goalkeeper Miguel Moya’s reach.
With Barcelona pressing for a second goal, Atletico turned up its physicality with hard fouls on both Neymar and Messi. Neymar spent five minutes on the sideline having a bloody right ankle tended to after Jose Gimenez’s tackle, and Jesus Gamez was booked for sending Messi tumbling to the turf.
But Suarez got his second goal in 10 league matches after Messi sprinted with the ball at his feet for half the pitch and passed to the striker. Televised replays showed what the referee had missed: Messi used his arm to control the ball at the start of his run. The referee didn’t let Messi get away with a slight kick that grazed Gamez’s boot, however, giving Atletico a spot kick and its first shot on goal.
The last stages of the match saw several unseemly run-ins, culminating in Raul Garcia shoving Neymar down, before Messi combined with Ivan Rakitic to get his goal.
Atletico can rebound by defending its 2-0 win in the Copa del Rey over Madrid on Thursday in their second leg of their last 16 tie on Thursday.