Atletico Madrid jumped to the top of La Liga on Saturday with a 4-0 thrashing of Cadiz after Lionel Messi came on at half-time to rescue Barcelona against Real Betis. Atletico claimed first place, ahead of Real Sociedad on goal difference, with the excellent Joao Felix scoring twice in another impressive victory for Diego Simeone’s side. Luis Suarez and Marcos Llorente were also on target as Atletico made it five wins and two draws from their opening seven games and underlined their status as genuine title contenders.
They have scored 17 goals and conceded just two in that time.
After the international break, Atleti play at home to Barcelona, when Suarez and Antoine Griezmann will be up against their former clubs.
But while Suarez has enjoyed a superb start for Atletico, scoring five goals already, Griezmann continues to struggle in the shadow of Messi at Camp Nou.
Messi had been rested by Ronald Koeman but was thrown on with the game in the balance after Griezmann missed a penalty, before Betis’ Antonio Sanabria cancelled out Ousmane Dembele’s opener.
Within four minutes of his introduction, Messi gave Griezmann an open goal with a superb dummy and then scored twice himself, the first a penalty that saw Betis’ Aissa Mandi sent off for a handball on the line.
In between, Loren Moron had given Betis brief hope but Messi’s second and a late strike from Pedri ensured Barcelona ended their four-match winless run and climbed to eighth in La Liga.
Messi also gave a resounding answer to those suggesting his performances this season have been evidence of decline.
“Leo finished the match against Kiev with some problems,” said Koeman. “He wasn’t in a position to play in the first half but we talked about him being on the bench and said he would come on if he felt good.
“He’s a player who in principle always plays, but today he didn’t because of some minor problems.”
Griezmann also got his goal with Messi on the pitch but was unable to prove a point without him.
Despite a lively opening half an hour, Griezmann missed a penalty before Messi scored his and Griezmann was eventually substituted, pictured sat in the stands with a gloomy expression while Barca romped to victory.
“I hope he continues to work like he is working,” said Koeman. “To miss opportunities you have to be there. We must highlight his character, to keep working. He knows perfectly well that he has missed a penalty, and some chances, but it means he is always there to score.”
Barca broke through after 22 minutes when Dembele cut inside onto his left foot before hammering a finish past Claudio Bravo for his first league goal in 13 months.
Mandi conceded a penalty after sliding in on Ansu but Griezmann missed, a tame shot easily saved by Bravo, before Betis scored, Sanabria finishing after Cristian Tello had again surged clear down the left.
Messi came on and four minutes later Barca were ahead, the Argentinian scuttling to meet Jordi Alba’s cross at the front post, only to step over the ball, fooling his marker and the goalkeeper, to leave Griezmann with an open net.
Messi made it 3-1 with a penalty, won after his pass had set up Dembele for a shot that was blocked on the line by the arm of Mandi, who was sent off.
Moron gave Betis hope with 17 minutes left but Messi made sure, latching onto Sergi Roberto’s flick and smashing in his second and Barca’s fourth. Pedri made it five in injury-time.
Sevilla later beat Osasuna 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Lucas Ocampos, that moves them up to 11th.
It is only the second time Sevilla have managed back-to-back wins this season, after a 3-2 victory over Krasnodar on Wednesday in the Champions League.
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