Lionel Messi marked his return from injury in style as his stunning volley sent Barcelona top of La Liga with a hard-fought 2-1 victory at Malaga on Saturday.
Messi missed Barca’s 2-1 Copa del Rey win over Athletic Bilbao in midweek because of a hamstring problem, but was typically influential at La Rosaleda – earning all three points with a sumptuous finish from Adriano’s cross.
The Argentina captain also had a hand in his side’s first goal as Munir El Haddadi broke the deadlock for Barca – who were missing Neymar through injury – by capping off a wonderfully worked attack with a second-minute tap-in.
Malaga fought back well, however, and were rewarded for piling pressure on the Barcelona goal when Juanpi levelled in the 32nd minute. Attacking midfielder Juanpi pounced of some poor defending from Barca to equalise with a deflected close-range strike.
Yet Barca were not to be denied and in the 52nd minute Messi settled matters with a marvellous show of technique to move Barca one point clear of Atletico Madrid, who take on Sevilla on Sunday.
Barca broke down the Malaga defence almost immediately as Messi played Luis Suarez in down the right with a superb pass, with the Uruguay forward – who replays suggested was marginally offside – then squaring for Munir to tap into an empty net from a yard.
Malaga responded excellently to going behind and went agonisingly close to levelling in the 14th minute as Claudio Bravo turned Gonzalo Castro’s drive from the edge of the area against the post.
The home fans were left incensed when Malaga were denied a penalty in the 25th minute, Charles booked for diving under a challenge from Javier Mascherano after Barca had carelessly conceded possession in their own half.
But Barca failed to learn their lesson from that scare and were deservedly pegged back seven minutes later.
This time Mascherano was at fault as the Argentinian failed to properly clear his lines, allowing Charles to tee up Juanpi to hit home at the end of a well-worked team move.
Barca had failed to threaten the Malaga goal after opening the scoring but would have retaken the lead if not for Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and some fine last-ditch defending.
Kameni did well to parry Munir’s left-footed strike across the face of goal and Messi was denied on the rebound as Miguel Torres produced a brilliant block.
Thomas Vermaelen was replaced by Jeremy Mathieu after half-time and seven minutes after the restart Messi restored Barca’s advantage in sublime fashion, meeting Adriano’s inswinging cross from the left with a magnificent acrobatic volley that left Kameni with no chance.
Malaga refused to lie down, though, with Bravo forced into action by Castro’s cross-cum-shot.
Adriano was then forced off through injury for Barca before Ignacio Camacho was thwarted by the in-form Bravo as Barca saw out the game to put the pressure on Diego Simeone’s men at the top.
Key Opta stats:
– Munir El Haddadi has scored in three of the last Barcelona’s four games.
– No player has assisted more goals in La Liga in 2016 than Luis Suarez (3).
– Leo Messi is going through his best scoring run in La Liga this season, having scored in a third-successive game (5 goals).
– Claudio Bravo made the most saves in a single game since he joined Barcelona (8).
– Barcelona’s last 12 goals against Malaga have been scored by different players: Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Montoya, Villa, Adriano, Pedro, Pique, Alexis, Vermaelen, Munir and Messi.
– This is first Barcelona’s away win in La Liga since beating Real Madrid at the Bernabeu 4-0 in November.