BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Lionel Messi ended Barcelona’s run of three straight losses and kept it in the Spanish league title chase by scoring a late free kick to complete its 2-1 comeback win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Messi’s 75th-minute goal answered some of the criticism the club’s all-time leading scorer had received for his lackluster performances in the team’s recent losses in the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey final.
Barcelona was on its way to another defeat when Aritz Aduriz scored in the 50th, provoking a smattering of white handkerchiefs in the Camp Nou stands, but Pedro Rodriguez equalized when he slotted in Alexis Sanchez’s scuffed strike in the 72nd.
Barcelona still needed defender Javier Mascherano to block Mikel Rico’s point-blank try in injury time to protect the three points after Cristian Tello had wasted one of numerous opportunities to put the result beyond doubt.
“After the first half I thought that this wasn’t to be our day after missing so many chances,” said Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino, whose job probably depends on Barcelona catching Atletico to defend its title.
“But we kept fighting. We played with a lot of heart to overcome a difficult week and a game that had turned against us. Messi defends himself on the pitch and I am happy for him.”
Messi set up his winner after earning a foul on the edge of the area, and the Argentina forward used his left foot to finally beat Gorka Iraizoz after the goalkeeper had denied him twice.
Barcelona’s attack was working. Its defense, however, showed the same frailties that have plagued it in the second half of the season.
Aduriz’s beautiful bicycle kick crashed into the post before goalkeeper Jose Pinto palmed away Markel Susaeta’s follow-up at the half-hour mark.
And when Messi sent the ball wide one-on-one against Iraizoz a collective groan filled the stadium.
“We knew that after all the opinions and criticism that we have received that we had to do our job and be professionals,” Mascherano said. “We have to hold on to that small hope that if we win our games we can then see what happens. We can’t just let (Atletico and Madrid) slip up and not be there.”