BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Coach Luis Enrique gave Paco Alcacer another chance, and Barcelona's struggling striker came through with a goal.
Alcacer, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal all scored to lead Barcelona to a 3-0 win over visiting Athletic Bilbao on Saturday. The win moved the defending champions to within one point of Spanish league leader Real Madrid, which has played two fewer matches.
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Alcacer used one touch of his left boot to drive Neymar's pass under goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz's glove and put Barcelona ahead in the 18th minute at Camp Nou.
Iraizoz was at fault five minutes before halftime when Messi doubled the lead. The Basque 'keeper could have done more to keep out the Argentine's free kick taken from a tight angle, which slipped through his grasp.
Vidal struck on the break in the 67th for the right back's second goal in just five league appearances this season.
Alcacer's goal was his first in the league since Barcelona paid Valencia 30 million euros (now $32 million) to secure his transfer in August. The former Spain striker's only other goal for Barcelona had come in the Copa del Rey against a lower-division opponent.
“I am almost happier (for him) than I was when I scored,” said Luis Enrique, a former Barcelona player himself. “I have empathy for people that want to keep striving forward when things aren't going their way.”
In giving Alcacer a starting place, Luis Enrique was able to rest Luis Suarez for Tuesday's Copa del Rey second-leg semifinal when Barcelona will defend a 2-1 away-leg win over Atletico Madrid.
Messi's 31st goal in all competitions this campaign pulled him level with Suarez as the league's joint top scorers with 16 each through 21 rounds.
With the win in hand, Messi also was substituted moments before Vidal got his goal.
“We are happy with the result, and for seeing that our entire squad is competitive,” Luis Enrique said.
While Neymar led Barcelona's attack with pace on the left wing, Bilbao had its chances in the first half against a Barcelona team that still missed injured midfielders Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Bilbao's Raul Garcia hit the post just three minutes after kickoff and Inaki Williams had two good scoring opportunities as Gerard Pique found it hard to keep up with the winger.
Pique was substituted by Javier Mascherano at halftime. The club said it was due to a muscle problem in Pique's left leg.
Barcelona midfielder Rafina bled profusely from his face after colliding with Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen early in the second half. Ivan Rakitic replaced him immediately.
Bilbao defender Yeray Alvarez returned to the pitch for the first time since being diagnosed with a testicular tumor in December. The 21-year-old played the entire match.
Fernando Torres ended a wait of more than four months for a goal in the competition, scoring twice to ease Atletico past Leganes.
Torres earned a penalty and then finished off Antoine Griezmann's missed spot kick for this first goal. He later chipped in a second goal shortly after halftime.
They were Torres' first league goals since he scored twice to round off a 5-0 win over Sporting Gijon on Sept. 17. The former Liverpool star's only other goal this season came against a lower-tier adversary in the Copa del Rey.
Atletico bounced back after consecutive draws to remain in fourth place, seven points behind Madrid.
“It was important to win again,” Torres said. “Now we have to treat Tuesday's match (against Barcelona in the cup) like a final.”
MALAGA 0, ESPANYOL 1
Pablo Piatti struck from long range early in the first half, and Espanyol's defense did the rest to secure a third straight victory for Espanyol.