Leo helped out his boss in their best performance
After a troubled week for Barcelona, Leo helped out his boss in their best performance of the season against a tough Atletico Madrid
Six games, no wins and no goals for Lionel Messi. Games against Atletico Madrid were anything but fun for Barcelona last season. But this one was.
Messi was in inspired form and back at something close to his brilliant best to lighten the mood at Camp Nou after his fall-out with Luis Enrique and troubled times for the Catalan club over the last week or so. On this evidence, the two men can continue to work together, despite their differences. The win was, at the vey least, a step in the right direction.
Before kick-off, the Argentine attacker was given an award for becoming La Liga's all-time top scorer late last year and there was also a banner raised on the pitch for his friend, journalist Jorge 'Topo' Lopez, who lost his life after the taxi he was travelling in was hit by delinquents during the World Cup in Brazil.
Leo's last meeting with Atleti at Camp Nou will also have been on his mind as he saw a perfectly good goal ruled out when Barca lost the Liga title decider on the last day of the season in May.
With the Ballon d'Or ceremony on Monday and the bust-up with coach Luis Enrique still fresh in the memory, there was plenty of motivation for the 27-year-old forward on Sunday.
Driving at defenders, seeking out team-mates, dropping deep and running Atleti's defence ragged, Leo looked a transformation of the uninterested player who, earlier this month, strolled around Anoeta after being left on the bench for the first half at Real Sociedad.
Messi started the move for the first goal from the right-hand side as he cut inside and found Luis Suarez, who in turn pushed the ball for Neymar to poke home at the far post. He then set up Suarez for the second, albeit after controlling with his hand before embarking on one of his remarkable runs.
Atletico pulled one back through Mario Mandzukic from the penalty spot when the Argentine was harshly penalised for what looked like a dive by Jesus Gamez, but Messi made sure of the result by bursting into the area and finding Ivan Rakitic, whose return pass was too strong but fell to the forward's feet via Raul Garcia and was duly dispatched into the net.
"We're all relaxed now and we need to leave club debates to one side," said president Josep Maria Bartomeu (who called elections this week) after the game. And he added: "Messi was motivated, but he always is - not only tonight..."
"It was our best game of the season and I'm very happy," Neymar said. "So much has gone on, but we are just concentrating on what's happening on the pitch now."
And for his part, Luis Enrique added: "All wins help to strengthen the team. We have three points, nothing more, but when we win we are happier and it's nicer."
Indeed, the win saw Barca move back to within a point of rivals Real Madrid at the top of La Liga but, more importantly, it was a tough test passed convincingly by a side very much under pressure following recent results, poor performances and off-the-pitch polemics.
In truth, Atleti had looked a shadow of the side that beat Madrid comfortably in the Copa del Rey on Wednesday (and that had been with several of their second string in the team) and Diego Simeone's side defended poorly in this one, but Barca must take credit too for what was probably their best performance of the season so far.
As usual for the Catalan club, Messi made the difference. But the Argentine's association with Neymar and Suarez continues to grow, while Rakitic, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets all played well. Luis Enrique got the balance right and, most significantly of all, Messi showed he is still prepared to play for his coach.
"People shouldn't look for a rivalry between Luis Enrique and me because there isn't one. I didn't ask for our coach to be sacked. None of that is true." said the Argentine (who also denied he is looking to leave Barca) after the match on Barca TV. "There are six months left to achieve good things for the team and for this club."
Summer elections mean Luis Enrique would be unlikely to stay beyond June in any case, but it now looks like the two men will put their differences aside for the good of the club until then. And wins like the one on Sunday will help.
Comments By: Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Barcelona 3-1 Atletico Madrid