By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Barcelona will hope Lionel Messi's return to form and full fitness can inspire them to victory at home to Malaga this weekend after a rare back-to-back winless run opened up the La Liga title race.
The Argentine laid on three assists for Cristian Tello on Wednesday as Barca came from behind to beat Levante 4-1 in the first leg of their King's Cup quarter final tie - Messi's 400th appearance for the Catalan club.
It was a very different encounter to when the two side's met in the league last weekend, where Levante managed to frustrate the champions and temper the Argentine's flair in a 1-1 stalemate.
Messi has been brought back slowly after several hamstring injuries during 2013, the latest in mid-November seeing him sidelined until after Christmas. He was initially introduced twice as a substitute but is now firing on all cylinders.
"When Messi plays like he did in the second half he was able to open up the game and could open up any other," Barca coach Gerardo Martino told reporters after the Levante cup match.
"Leo came more into the contest and it changed. When you have little space and the rival closes you down you need players like Messi to create that space. He didn't score but gave three key assists to turnaround the game.
"When we need him most, like today, he has come and helped us."
The return to form of Messi is all the more important with Neymar's ankle injury, picked up against Getafe, likely to see him miss several matches.
Barca's draw with Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga, followed by both sides again failing to win last weekend has opened up the title race. Real Madrid are now just one point behind.
Real, who face Granada, have found consistency following a stuttering start to the campaign. They have won their last eight games in all competitions and haven't conceded a goal in seven of those.
"This is the line to follow for us as if we can keep secure at the back then we know we will get chances in attack with the quality we have there," Real defender Alvaro Arbeloa told reporters.
"There is a good relationship in the dressing room with the coach and we need to keep this run going."
Atletico remain behind Barcelona on goal difference and now have a derby with struggling Rayo Vallecano. Knowing that Barca had only managed a draw against Levante, they wasted the chance to go two points clear as they were also held 1-1 by Sevilla last Sunday.
"Normally we have been playing before Barcelona and if it had been the other way round then we would be happy," Atletico coach Diego Simeone told a news conference, refusing to be downhearted.
"(Real) Madrid are now where we expected them to be 15 matches ago. It is what we expected and so the situation now is not surprising. We have always been in a contest with Barca and Madrid." (Editing by Patrick Johnston)