BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi scored again and Barcelona won again, though in lackluster fashion and by 2-0 at Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish league on Saturday.
Messi netted his 12th league goal in the first half, and Paulinho in added time.
“Leo has an incredible capability to tilt the scale. We are lucky to have the world’s best player with us,” coach Ernesto Valverde said.
The Catalan club’s ninth win in 10 rounds strengthened its lead back to a four-point cushion over Valencia.
Valencia won at Alaves 2-1, its seventh straight in all competitions, thanks to Simone Zaza’s opening goal before halftime.
The Italian striker trailed only Messi on the goal-scoring list with eight, but it was teammate Rodrigo Moreno who notched the game-winner with a penalty shot in the second half.
Atletico Madrid was still undefeated and ranked fourth after notching its fifth draw, 1-1 at home versus Villarreal.
Atletico hasn’t lost in 14 straight games and faces another pressure match on Tuesday, against Qarabag in the Champions League.
MESSI BY THE DOZEN
Messi again showcased his multi skillset with a dazzling display of playmaking and finishing while leading Barcelona to another league win.
The Argentine star first volleyed a long shot into Kepa Arrizabalaga’s hands, later hit the near post after combining with Luis Suarez and dribbling by the goalkeeper, and finally scored on a low one-tap strike after a cross from left back Jordi Alba.
Messi initialized the scoring play and also assisted Paulinho on a clear chance that the Brazilian whiffed on, hitting the crossbar.
But Aritz Aduriz’s miss was more costly for Bilbao, which could have taken the lead in the early going if its top striker had been able to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen one-on-one.
Barcelona capitalized on a Messi-led counterattack and shot by Suarez, which the keeper was unable to corral, and Paulinho pounced on for the empty-netter.
After a slow start to the season, Zaza has scored in six consecutive matches.
Valencia has won six straight in La Liga, outscoring opponents 23-8. It was coming off a 2-0 win over second-division club Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey on Tuesday.
ATLETICO BLOW IT
Antoine Griezmann had the best early chance for Atletico when he hit the post, and Saul Niguez was unable to cash in the rebound, stuffed by defender Victor Ruiz in the goalmouth. And just before halftime, a powerful header by Diego Godin forced a brilliant save from Mariano Barbosa.
Unable to score, Griezmann excelled as a playmaker in the second half, and lobbed a one-touch pass towards forward Angel Correa, who deftly controlled the ball on the run and swiped a strike between the keeper’s left shoulder and the nearest post for the lead.
It could have been two for Atletico had Kevin Gameiro done the same shortly after, but he shot straight at Barbosa and the miss proved costly.
“We couldn’t close it,” Correa said. “We were unlucky.”
Carlos Bacca tied the score with 10 minutes left when he outjumped Godin on a corner cross and beat a retreating Jan Oblak.
“Atletico had to come out and dominate, but we played well and made it a close game,” Bacca said. “The draw is good for us.”
SEVILLA NOW SIXTH
Sevilla beat Leganes 2-1 and climbed over the latter into sixth spot.
More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga