LIONEL Messi scored his 50th and 51st goals in all competitions to help Barcelona keep the pressure on Real Madrid in the Spanish league’s tight title race.
Neymar and Luis Suarez also struck in a 4-1 victory over Villarreal that increased the combined goal tally of Barcelona’s trio of star strikers to 102 in the campaign.
Barcelona holds the tiebreaker over Madrid, but Madrid will still have three matches to play after this round to Barcelona’s two. That means Madrid controls its own fate as it tries to dethrone Barcelona and lift its first Liga title since 2012.
“Madrid is playing very well but you never know,” Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said. “We won. That’s what we had to do.”
BARCELONA 4, VILLARREAL 1
Messi’s goal on the last kick of the first half tilted a match that was wide open for the first 45 minutes in Barcelona’s favor.
Neymar, who excelled in his incursions from the left flank throughout, opened the scoring when he poked in a shot by Messi that hit a defender and fell to him in front of goalkeeper Andres Fernandez.
Villarreal responded with a goal by striker Cedric Bakambu in the 32nd when Roberto Soldado played him clear on the break as he sped away from Pique. Soldado barely missed with a header on the other end before Neymar helped Messi reach the 50-goal mark for the fifth time in his career.
Neymar deftly dribbled past a pair of defenders and laid off for Messi to put the ball on his left boot. Head down, Messi opened an angle around two defenders and unleashed a long strike that took a deflection off Villarreal’s Mario Gaspar before finding the net.
“(Messi) is a specialist in knowing where to be to do damage,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said.
“(Neymar) has a different way of understanding football for all the rest. He plays at such a high speed. Sometimes it’s a dance, something exceptional, more than just merely dribbling.” Suarez fired his goal under Fernandez in the 69th after Sergi Roberto set him up in the area.
Messi added a penalty that he converted in the “panenka” style, gently chipping the ball down the middle after the goalie moved, after Jaume Costa handled the ball in the box.
Messi increased his league-leading haul to 35 goals, followed by Suarez’s 27.
ATLETICO MADRID 1, EIBAR 0
Atletico Madrid rebounded from its stinging loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League by sealing its return to the continent’s top-tier competition for a fifth consecutive year.
Atletico’s victory at home over Eibar ensured Diego Simeone’s side will finish in the top four places in Spain with two matches remaining.
Atletico remained in third place, five points ahead of Sevilla in fourth and 11 ahead of Villarreal in fifth.
Atletico lost at Madrid 3-0 in the opening leg of their Champions League semifinal on Tuesday. The return leg is next Wednesday.
Far from being downcast following that defeat, Atletico’s fans cheered loudly throughout the match and applauded players after the final whistle. “It’s incredible, our fans are with us until the end,” goalscorer Saul Niguez said. “We gave it our all, just like our fans despite the result of the other day. They will be with us again on Wednesday. We will do everything we can to pull off the comeback.” Niguez drilled in a low cross by Diego Godin that substitute Fernando Torres smartly decided not to touch when it crossed his path in the 69th. Godin was sent off in stoppage time after picking up two quick bookings, ruling him out of the penultimate round at Real Betis.
SPORTING GIJON 1, LAS PALMAS 0
Carlos Carmona’s goal midway through the second half gave Sporting hope that it can avoid relegation.
Sporting’s first win in eight rounds lifted it to within three points of Leganes, which hosts Real Betis on Monday.
Osasuna, along with Granada, have already been relegated.