BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Lionel Messi put Barcelona on a clear path to the Spanish league title after scoring from a free kick for a third straight game on Sunday.
Messi’s goal gave Barcelona a 1-0 win against second-place Atletico Madrid and widened the gap over its closest rival to eight points with 11 rounds remaining.
The Argentina forward dipped a shot over the wall in the 26th minute to take his league-leading tally to 24 this season and 32 in all competitions.
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It was Messi’s sixth goal from a free kick this season, and his third straight after successful free kicks against Girona and Las Palmas.
Barcelona remained undefeated after 27 rounds and dealt Atletico just its second defeat in the league this season.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone said the league was Barcelona’s to win.
”The numbers are what they are. Barcelona wouldn’t normally lose four or five games in what they have left,” Simeone said. ”But this is football, and we have to go out there to win the next match and think about how we can continue to improve.”
Ernesto Valverde’s side now has a comfortable lead and can focus on its round-of-16 second leg match in the Champions League against Chelsea on March 14. Barcelona drew 1-1 in the away leg at Stamford Bridge.
It was not all positive for the Catalan leaders, however, with midfielder Andres Iniesta substituted in the first half due to a hamstring injury in his right leg.
Atletico entered the match with the best defense in La Liga with only 11 goals previously conceded.
But after an early stretch when Atletico neutralized host Barcelona’s ball possession, Messi broke through with a perfectly stroked free kick that he set up by earning a foul from Thomas Partey.
Messi’s left-footed strike gave Jan Oblak little chance. The Atletico goalkeeper got his fingertips to the ball, but it was not nearly enough.
”There is no player like Messi in the world,” Valverde said. ”Obviously there are several matches left, but we have taken a step forward.”
Barcelona’s most difficult matches should be away at Sevilla and at home against third-place Real Madrid and Valencia.
Iniesta walked off the pitch in the 36th minute. The 33-year-old midfielder had tried to play on after going down around 10 minutes before when he grabbed his right thigh.
The hosts continued to press for a second goal, however, and Philippe Coutinho twice wiggled clear in the box to test Oblak.
Needing to spark an attack that had produced nothing through the first hour, Simeone replaced defender Sime Vrsaljko and holding midfielder Gabi Fernandez with forwards Angel Correa and Kevin Gameiro.
The additions to strike pair Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa finally made Barcelona work in defense, although goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was never seriously threatened.
The closest Atletico came to scoring was a goal by Gameiro that was disallowed when Costa was ruled offside when he set him up late.
Prior to kickoff, Camp Nou fans gave a standing ovation before a minute’s silence in tribute to former Barcelona player Enrique Castro ”Quini,” who died from a heart attack on Tuesday.
Valencia got goals from strikers Rodrigo Moreno and Simone Zaza to beat Real Betis 2-0 and increase its chance of a top-four finish and Champions League spot.
Fourth-place Valencia has an eight-point advantage over fifth-place Sevilla.
LEVANTE FIRES COACH
Levante fired coach Juan Lopez Muniz following a 1-1 draw with Espanyol that left it in danger of falling into the relegation zone.
The club said reserve team coach Paco Lopez will take over until the end of the season.
Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez was hospitalized after he lost consciousness after knocking heads with another player during the match. The club said that Lopez was not in danger but would spend the night under observation.
Leo Baptistao’s injury-time goal snatched a point for Espanyol.
Real Sociedad beat Alaves 2-1 in a Basque Country derby thanks to early goals by Hector Moreno and Asier Illarramendi.
Sociedad moved past Alaves, jumping from 16th to 12th place.