Messi helps Barça scrape past Bilbao
Lionel Messi was the hero for Barcelona on his 250th competitive appearance for the club as he scored a late winner to overcome a stubborn Athletic Bilbao side 2-1 at the Camp Nou tonight.
Barça went ahead within three minutes through David Villa, but the Catalans flattered to deceive for much of the rest of the game and Athletic levelled shortly after the break, when Andoni Iraola scored from the spot.
And just when it looked as if Pep Guardiola's side would have to settle for a disappointing draw, Messi - who had two very good penalty shouts turned down - popped up with a priceless winner to keep Barça five points clear of arch-rivals Real Madrid after 24 rounds of the Primera Division.
"We couldn't afford another slip-up as Real Madrid were close," said Messi. "We won a very important match. There isn't that much left of the league to go now and every game is vital."
Barcelona had failed to win their previous two matches, having been held at lowly Sporting Gijon in the league last weekend and losing 2-1 to Arsenal in the first leg of the teams' UEFA Champions League last-16 tie.
Villa grabs early goal
But any talk of a crisis at the Catalan club appeared to have been put to rest after just three minutes, albeit in controversial circumstances. Xavi's clever long pass found Dani Alves and the Brazil full-back, who looked to be marginally offside, squared for Villa to slot home.
Andres Iniesta almost set up Messi in a very dangerous position moments later and the Argentina forward could have had a penalty not long after that, when he was clearly shoved by Athletic midfielder Carlos Gurpegi.
Markel Susaeta headed into the side-netting at the other end as Athletic sought a quick reply. But Villa, having scored in three successive matches for the first time as a Barcelona player, almost added another after 25 minutes, when he sent a delightful chip onto the crossbar.
Nevertheless, with half-time approaching, the Catalans needed an impressive intervention from goalkeeper Jose Manuel Pinto - in for the injured Victor Valdes - to stay in front. Pinto produced a fine reaction save, diving low to his right to keep out a powerful header from Athletic striker Fernando Llorente.
Alves then blasted wide from distance and Villa curled over the bar from outside the area, but Barça seemed to be playing well within themselves. And Athletic were able to take advantage five minutes into the second half as Sergio Busquets brought down Llorente in the area and Iraola slotted home the spot-kick to level the scores.
Busquets looked to touch the ball as he dived in to clear Eric Abidal's misplaced pass, but the midfielder - playing in defence in the absence of captain Carles Puyol - took his Spain team-mate Llorente down too and Barça could have no arguments with the decision.
Messi settles the match
Now back to square one, Barça looked to Messi. And the Argentina forward thought he had won a penalty just short of the hour after he ran through a crowd of Athletic defenders and advanced into the area, only to go down under a challenge from Javi Martinez. It looked a clear penalty but the referee waved play on, provoking fury among the 83,000 Barça fans.
Guardiola made a tactical switch five minutes later, with Maxwell coming on for the ineffective Javier Mascherano. That change saw Maxwell installed at left-back, with Abidal moving to central defence and Busquets reverting to his usual defensive midfield slot.
And unsurprisingly, Barça improved immediately. Villa saw a low angled drive saved by Gorka Iraizoz and slipped over at a key moment shortly afterwards, but Guardiola's side kept on pouring forward and as usual, their hero was Messi.
The Argentinian popped up on the edge of the six-yard box to beat Iraizoz with a first-time shot from Alves' low cross after the Brazilian had been set up superbly by Xavi. The relief was tangible around the ground and also apparent on the Barça bench. Guardiola's side stay five points clear of Real, while Athletic remain in fifth place with 14 games remaining.