MADRID: Lionel Messi scored once and played his part in four more goals as Barcelona closed to within a point of La Liga leaders Real Madrid with a commanding performance to beat Athletic Bilbao 5-2 on Sunday.
The four-time World Player of the Year opened the scoring with a deflected free-kick and then teed up Luis Suarez to double the visitors’ advantage.
Mikel Rico briefly gave Athletic hope after half-time, but Messi’s goalbound header was then turned into his own net by Oscar de Marcos before Neymar rolled home Barca’s fourth from another Messi pass.
Aritz Aduriz made it four goals in a crazy six minute spell by pulling another goal back for Athletic, but the hosts ended the game with 10 men after Xabier Etxeita was shown a straight red card for a horrible challenge on Suarez before Pedro Rodriguez added a fifth.
Barca have now won their last nine games, scoring 34 goals in the process, and will be further boosted by Real’s ragged showing in their 4-0 destruction at the hands of Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
“It is clear the team are all united and pulling in the same direction,” Suarez told Barca TV.
“Players of the class of Messi and Neymar will always make the difference. I just have to enjoy playing with them.”
Messi took his tally for the season to 33 with the opener on 16 minutes, but there he had a touch of fortune as his free-kick struck Aymeric Laporte in the Athletic wall and wrong-footed goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz.
The hosts had a great chance for an instant response as Iker Muniain picked out Aduriz, but Claudio Bravo got down well to turn his effort behind.
Moments later Iraizoz made amends for his weak hand in the opener with a stunning save to prevent Suarez heading home a perfectly weighted cross from Messi.
Bravo was called into action again to parry Markel Susaeta’s well-struck free-kick, but Barca tore through the Athletic defence once more on 26 minutes as Messi laid the ball into Suarez’s path for the Uruguayan to thump home his first goal in five games.
Chances continued to flow at both ends as Laporte blocked Neymar’s goalbound effort on the line, whilst Aduriz saw a header come back off the inside of the post.
Athletic were given a lifeline on the hour mark when Rico swept home the rebound after Bravo had again denied Aduriz.
However, Barca responded in supreme fashion as De Marcos could only turn Messi’s header into his own net before the Argentine teed up Neymar to slot home his 23rd goal of the season.
The Basques refused to lie down as Aduriz pulled another goal back thanks to a rare Bravo error when his shot flew in at the near post.
There was no excuse for Etxeita’s horror challenge on Suarez, though, as he raked his studs down the Uruguayan’s knee, forcing the former Liverpool man to be replaced by Pedro for the closing stages.
And Pedro was on hand to round off the scoring from Sergio Busquets cross after Messi had left a host of Athletic defenders in his wake.
Earlier, Valencia moved up to fourth as they took advantage of Sevilla’s 2-1 defeat at Getafe by winning at Espanyol by the same score.
Valencia went in front midway through the second-half when Pablo Piatti prodded home Jose Gaya’s low cross.
The visitors then made the three points safe when Dani Parejo’s fine free kick struck the post and rebounded in off unfortunate Espanyol goalkeeper Pau Lopez, before Sergio Garcia netted a consolation for the Catalans.
Sevilla suffered their second defeat in Madrid in just five days after also going down by the same 2-1 scoreline to Real Madrid on Wednesday.
Alvaro Vazquez gave the hosts the lead from the penalty spot and Pedro Leon bundled home the winner five minutes from time after Grzegorz Krychowiak’s stunning equaliser.