La Liga leaders Barcelona came from a goal down to edge nine-man Atletico Madrid 2-1 on Saturday, as strikes from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez settled the top-of-the-table clash.
Separated by goal difference before kick-off, with Barca having played a game less, the champions recovered from a sluggish start to move three points clear and claim a potentially vital win in the title race.
Having been on the back foot early on, the champions fell behind to Koke’s 10th-minute strike only for Messi and Suarez to turn the tables before half-time.
Luis Enrique’s men gradually hit their stride and the first of two pieces of indiscipline hampered Atleti’s efforts as Filipe Luis was dismissed for a poor challenge on Messi just before half-time.
The second half struggled to offer the same quality as the first, Barca content to take the sting out of the game, and the hosts’ cause was aided further by Diego Godin’s second caution for a late tackle on Suarez after the hour.
Barca saw the win out with relative ease in the end as Atleti – knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Celta Vigo in midweek – had their title hopes dented.
Amid early Atleti pressure, Saul brought an impressive save from the recalled Claudio Bravo inside two minutes before Koke gave the visitors the lead with a calm strike from inside the area.
Antoine Griezmann failed to get a touch on Saul’s cross but Koke was free in the box to volley past Bravo and register his first goal since November.
Messi and Suarez had sights on goal as Barca grew into the game and the former levelled on the half-hour mark as he put the finishing touch on a lovely move down the left involving Jordi Alba and Neymar.
Messi’s sixth goal in the last four La Liga games was soon followed by Suarez’s 31st of the season in all competitions as the Uruguayan latched on to Dani Alves’ precise ball before getting goal-side of Jose Maria Gimenez and finishing coolly past Jan Oblak.
Atletico’s plan continued to unravel up to half-time as Filipe Luis was dismissed for a high tackle on Messi that prompted a furious response from Luis Enrique and the Barcelona bench.
Atleti coach Diego Simeone sacrificed Gabi for Jesus Gamez at the break but, with a numerical advantage, Barca took their time in possession, Godin’s intervention required to deny Suarez a sight of goal following a precise Messi pass.
In-form Griezmann almost levelled before the hour – Bravo denying the Frenchman’s prodded effort with his left foot – as Simeone’s men remained determined to cause Barca problems.
But Atleti’s traditionally physical approach proved their undoing as another rash challenge from Godin on compatriot Suarez earned him a second yellow card, Messi seeing the subsequent free-kick palmed away by Oblak.
Substitute Arda Turan almost scored against his former club on his birthday 13 minutes from time – sending a shot wide – as Barca’s defence of the league, cup and European treble they won last season overcame another hurdle.