March 15, 2015 12:18:44 pm
Lionel Messi moved ahead of rival Cristiano Ronaldo with his 31st and 32nd Spanish league goals of the season as Barcelona won 2-0 at Eibar on Saturday to stay atop the standings.
Messi earned and converted a penalty in the 31st minute before netting with a header in the 55th, giving him two more league goals than Ronaldo as the pair vies to finish the season as the competition’s top scorer.
Barcelona increased its advantage over Ronaldo’s Real Madrid to four points before it hosts Levante on Sunday. The two powerhouses are set to meet next weekend at Camp Nou.
But first Barcelona faces Manchester City on Wednesday, when the Catalan club will look to make good on its 2-1 first-leg win in their Champions League round-of-16 tie.
“We will arrive (to the clasico) leaders and in perfect shape,” Luis Enrique said. “I don’t consider this as the most important week of the season, rather as a very attractive week. One match will determine if we advance to the quarterfinals or not, because City are very talented. Then we will see about the next match on the weekend.”
While Barcelona had little trouble handing the promoted Basque minnow its eighth straight defeat, Atletico Madrid’s dwindling hopes to defend the title took another blow after a 0-0 draw at Espanyol.
Ronaldo once seemed ready to run away with the league’s individual scoring title after leading Messi 25-13 through 15 rounds.
But Messi has scored 19 goals in 12 league matches since then to move two ahead of Ronaldo.
Overall, Messi took his tally to 43 goals in 39 games this campaign, including five in his last two matches.
Rayo Vallecano forward Alberto Bueno also continued his impressive season by netting his 14th and 15th goals to lead a 3-1 comeback victory over relegation-threatened Granada. Bueno only trails Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar (17) in the league scoring charts.
Athletic Bilbao won its fourth league match in a row by beating Celta Vigo 2-1 on the road after goals by Aritz Aduriz and Mikel San Jose.
Bilbao stayed in eighth, immediately followed by Espanyol, Celta and Rayo.
With a crucial week ahead, Luis Enrique rested Andres Iniesta, Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves, Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu. The team kept clicking with little-used Sergi Roberto, Martin Montoya and Marc Bartra starting.
Eibar hung on until Neymar started a move that culminated in Luis Suarez using a deft touch to set up Messi, whose goal-bound shot hit defender Borja Ekiza in the arm.
Messi stepped up and drove the resulting spot kick beyond the reach of goalkeeper Jaime Jimenez to put Barcelona in front for good.
Heavy rain didn’t slow Barcelona down after the break, and the unmarked Messi headed Ivan Rakitic’s corner kick through the crowded area and beyond Jimenez’s grasp.
Xavi Hernandez took his Barcelona club record to 750 appearances when he went on for Rakitic in the 62nd minute.
Eibar didn’t threaten Claudio Bravo’s goal until substitute Federico Piovaccari hit the bar with two to play.
Once the league’s sensation in its first season in the top flight, Eibar has slumped since January and sits three points above the relegation zone.
Atletico’s recent struggles also continued.
Atletico outplayed Espanyol until defender Miranda earned a direct red card for smashing his arm into Abraham Gonzalez’s head in first-half injury time.
Atletico was left in fourth place after Valencia moved ahead into third through its 2-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna on Friday.
Since thrashing then-leader Madrid 4-0, Diego Simeone’s side has just one win in five rounds and now trails Barcelona by nine points.
“We are having a tough time finding the net,” said Simeone, who repeated that his objective was not to retain the title but finish in third place behind the much richer Madrid and Barcelona.
Atletico needs to find its form quickly. On Tuesday, it hosts Bayer Leverkusen aiming to overturn a 1-0 loss in the second leg of their Champions League last 16 series.
Gonzalez didn’t return after Miranda’s blow and was substituted at halftime. Espanyol said Gonzalez was taken to hospital for “head trauma” where the midfielder would undergo tests.
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