Lionel Messi smashed in a superb free kick to complete a 2-1 comeback win for injury-hit Barcelona at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday that kept alive their slim hopes of a fifth La Liga title in six years.
After a wretched 12 days when they were eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, beaten in the King’s Cup final by Real Madrid and suffered a shock 1-0 reverse at lowly Granada in La Liga, Barca badly needed a morale-boosting victory in front of their fans at the Nou Camp.
However, after Messi, Pedro and Alexis Sanchez squandered clear scoring opportunities, Aritz Aduriz fired fourth-placed Bilbao ahead five minutes into the second half, prompting rumblings of discontent among the home faithful.
Pedro levelled in the 72nd minute after more chances had gone begging and Messi struck the winner three minutes later when he drove the ball powerfully into the net, the Argentina forward’s 26th goal of an injury-disrupted season.
With four matches left including a trip to Barca on the final day of the season, surprise leaders Atletico top the standings on 85 points following Friday’s 2-0 home win over Elche.
Barca are second on 81 points, two ahead of Real, who have a game in hand. Bilbao are a further 17 points behind Real and remain well placed to secure a berth in Champions League qualifying for next season.
“We are creating a lot of chances but finding it tough to put them away,” Barca centre back Javier Mascherano said in an interview with Spanish television broadaster Canal Plus.
“We just have to do things as professionally as possible for the remaining few games,” added the Argentine, who made a superb block late on to deny Bilbao substitute Mikel Rico.
“We have to hold on to this small amount of hope we have, try to win all our matches and see what happens.”
Barca have been ravaged by injuries in recent weeks and were without Brazil forward Neymar and the Spain trio of left back Jordi Alba, central defender Gerard Pique and goalkeeper Victor Valdes for Bilbao’s visit.
They lost to the Basque club at the San Mames in December and looked hungry for an early goal in the return, Messi and Pedro drawing fine saves from goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz before Adriano had a shot cleared off the line by Mikel Balenziaga.
In an entertaining contest featuring two attack-minded sides, Aduriz cracked a stunning overhead kick against the post on the half hour and Alexis scuffed a shot against the crossbar two minutes later when it seemed easier to score.
Five minutes into the second half Bilbao were ahead. An error from Barca centre back Marc Bartra surrendered possession in a dangerous position and Aduriz strode forward before firing clinically continued…