Barcelona answers Atleti with big Lionel Messi-driven win at Girona

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/372884/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> celebrates scoring <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/barcelona/" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona">Barcelona</a>’s second goal in Sunday’s 2-0 win at <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/girona/" data-ylk="slk:Girona">Girona</a>. (Reuters/Sergio Perez)
Lionel Messi celebrates scoring Barcelona’s second goal in Sunday’s 2-0 win at Girona. (Reuters/Sergio Perez)

Barcelona maintained its five-point La Liga lead over Atletico Madrid with Sunday’s  2-0 win over 10-man Girona, getting goals from defender Nelson Semedo and — who else? — Lionel Messi on either side of halftime. But the Spanish title race is anything but a forgone conclusion.

For Barca, this was a tricker match than the final score would suggest. The pressure was on the leaders to respond after Atletiveasily dispatched Getafe on Saturday on first-half strikes by Saul Niguez and French World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann. The visitors knew that dropping points would put Diego Simeone’s team within striking distance. And while Barca boasts the best away record in the league and Girona came into the contest sitting 12th in the 20-team circuit, winning on the road is never easy.

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Semendo quickly settled any nerves. Messi started the sequence by lofting a probing pass behind the hosts’ backline. Girona had several opportunities to clear but eventually the ball fell to the shifty right back, who tucked his first La Liga goal just inside the near post.

Barcelona took that narrow lead into the intermission. But they probably felt their advantage should’ve been greater; Messi’s free kick on 30 minutes appeared to strike the arm of Girona’s Pere Pons, but appeals for a penalty fell on deaf ears.

Messi and Co. would catch a break later on, however, when the hosts’ Bernardo Espinosa was sent off after picking up a second yellow card. With the extra space on the field, it was only a matter of time before Barca would find the backbreaker. 

It came in the 68th minute of a quick counterattack that was finished in ice-cool fashion by Messi, who chipped Canadian-born keeper Yassine Bono beautifully to put the match away:

Girona’s players contended that the play was offside, but replays showed otherwise. Barcelona nearly added a third in second-half stoppage time when Messi set up Luis Suarez, but Bono made a terrific save.

Barca will now turn its attention to overcoming a 2-0 first leg deficit in the Copa del Rey when they take on Sevilla Wednesday in the decisive match. They’ll then return to league play against seventh-place Valencia next Saturday.

Ernesto Valverde’s side will welcome Atletico to the Nou Camp on April 7. There should be plenty to play for if both teams continue to win. 

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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