New Straits Times
Messi scores 600th time for club and country
BARCELONA beat nearest challengers Atletico Madrid 1-0 thanks to an outstanding free kick from Lionel Messi on Sunday to move eight points clear at the top of La Liga and closer to a 25th Spanish title.
Barca’s all-time top scorer Messi wrapped his left foot around the ball to send it flying over the wall and inside the top corner in the 26th minute to register his 600th career goal.
Atletico, who clinched the 2014 title at the Nou Camp but have not won there since 2016, could have cut the gap with Barca to two points with a victory but coach Diego Simeone opted for a typically conservative approach.
Thomas Partey’s wayward strike from distance was Atletico’s only threat and although Simeone made two attacking substitutions his side could not force Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen into making a save.
“It was a very tight game. Messi is a unique player and if he had been wearing our shirt instead of Barca’s perhaps we would have won,” Simeone told reporters.
The Argentine coach admitted it was difficult to see Barca losing their grip on their considerable lead at the top.
“The numbers don’t lie and you expect Barca won’t lose four or five games but this is football and it’s marvellous so you never know,” he said.
Barca manager Ernesto Valverde started record signing Philippe Coutinho but lost captain Andres Iniesta to injury in the first half and was forced to call on the often-criticised Andre Gomes.
What should have been a showdown for the title failed to live up to expectations as Atletico focused on cancelling out Barca and limiting Messi to as little space as possible.
They had not counted on the Argentine’s remarkable ability to score from free kicks, however, and Messi decided the game, and quite possibly the title race, with a third exquisite set-piece goal in as many games.
Barca coach Valverde said his side could not rest easy until the final whistle despite Atletico’s paucity of chances.
“They didn’t have clear chances but you’re never relaxed because they have great forwards. We had to suffer, because if you want to beat Atletico Madrid you always have to suffer,” he said.
“Above all, I’m proud of how we competed. In games like this throughout the season we’ve lived up to expectations and today we did it again.”
Also on Sunday, Valencia tightened their hold on fourth spot after beating Real Betis 2-0 at home as Italian striker Simone Zaza scored for the first time since December, adding the second goal early in the second half after Rodrigo Moreno had hit the opener.
Real Sociedad beat Alaves 2-1 to climb up to 12th in the standings while Espanyol drew 1-1 at Levante with an injury-time equaliser by Leo Baptistao.
Levante sacked coach Juan Ramon Lopez Muniz after the game following a run of 15 league games without a win which has left them one point above the relegation zone in 17th.
• BERLIN: Runaway Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich won 40 at Freiburg on Sunday and veteran strikers Claudio Pizarro and Mario Gomez scored to boost their chances of World Cup recalls.
Bayern, chasing a sixth successive title, opened up a 20-point lead over Schalke 04 with nine games to go.
Peruvian forward Pizarro became the fourth oldest player to net in the Bundesliga when he gave Cologne an early lead at home to VfB Stuttgart before Germany’s Gomez replied with a brace to lead the visitors to a 3-2 win.
Pizarro, 39, put bottom-of-thetable Cologne ahead after seven minutes and has now scored at least one Bundesliga goal in each of the last 20 years.
Cologne dominated, threatened a second but were floored when Gomez, 32, scored twice in three minutes before halftime.
Andreas Beck added a third for Stuttgart in the second half before a Milos Jojic free kick gave the Billy Goats a glimmer of hope five minutes from time but it was not enough.
Pizarro has never taken part at a World Cup as Peru have not qualified since 1982 and he last played for his country in March 2016, but coach Ricardo Gareca has not entirely ruled out the forward.
Gomez missed the last World Cup after an injury-plagued season but is hoping to convince Germany coach Joachim Loew to take him to Russia.
Bayern were gifted the lead at Freiburg by an Alexander Schwolow own goal in the 25th minute and Corentin Tolisso added another three minutes later.
Sandro Wagner and Thomas Mueller completed the rout in the second half.
• PARIS: Olympique Marseille snatched an equaliser five minutes into stoppage-time to draw 1-1 at home to Nantes in Ligue 1 on Sunday and avoid a fourth consecutive defeat in all competitions.
Florian Thauvin bundled the ball into the net in a goalmouth melee following a corner after Nantes had taken the lead early in the first half through Leo Dubois, who beat Steve Mandanda with a right-foot shot from Valentin Rongier’s cut-back.
Marseille, who enjoyed more possession but squandered a string of chances, notably three by France international Dimitri Payet, remained third in the standings on 56 points from 28 matches.
They are four points behind second-placed Monaco and 18 adrift of leaders Paris St Germain, who won 2-0 at Troyes on Saturday.
Fourth-placed Olympique Lyonnais were also held to a 1-1 draw at Montpellier and remained five points behind Marseille in the race for Champions League berths.
Lyon have gone six league matches without a win since their 2-1 victory over PSG in January.
On a pitch at La Mosson in a sorry state because of heavy rain that made good football difficult, Isaac Mbenza opened the scoring for Montpellier in the seventh minute and striker Mariano Diaz equalised in the 58th.