Messi to the rescue as Barcelona go five clear

Madrid, Feb 21 (AFP) Argentine Lionel Messi scored avital 77th-minute winner as Barcelona laboured to a 2-1 homewin over Athletic Bilbao to restore their five-point lead overReal Madrid at the Spanish first division summit.

Barcelona looked set to drop two more points after AndoniIraola''s penalty had cancelled out David Villa''s third-minuteopener, however, Messi popped up with his 25th league goal ofthe season to clinch the points at Camp Nou yesterday.

"We couldn''t afford another slip-up as Real Madrid wereclose," said Messi. "We won a very important match. Thereisn''t that much left of the league to go now and every game isvital."

It was Pep Guardiola''s 100th league match in charge ofBarcelona and the manager was a relieved man as his sidebounced back from their 2-1 Champions League defeat to Arsenalin midweek.

Real Madrid had closed to within two points of Barcelonawith a 2-0 win over Levante and the Catalan club respondedwith a hard-fought victory.

With their 2-1 defeat at Arsenal still fresh in theirminds, Barcelona were keen to get off to a good start and tookthe lead after just three minutes through Villa.

A diagonal pass from Xavi picked out the run of rightback Dani Alves and the Brazilian laid the ball back for Villato stroke home his 16th league goal of the season.

Bilbao could have equalised in the 10th minute withFernando Llorente tricking Gerard Pique with a great drag backbefore crossing for Markel Susaeta, who headed just wide.

Villa was looking increasingly threatening and almostscored his second on 26 minutes but his brilliant chip cameback off the crossbar.

The visitors had their chances though and stand-ingoalkeeper Jose Pinto, deputising for the injured VictorValdes, was forced to produce a fine diving save to stop aLlorente header in the 35th minute.

Barcelona then pressed the self-destruct button to allowthe visitors to equalise four minutes after the interval.

French full back Eric Abidal sold team-mate SergiBusquets short with a misplaced pass and the midfielder lungedin to take down Llorente and concede a penalty, which Iraolaconverted. MORE (AFP) PM

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