By Iain Rogers
MADRID (Reuters) – Barcelona leapfrogged Atletico Madrid to go top of La Liga after Lionel Messi’s acrobatic volley secured a hard-fought 2-1 victory against tenacious Malaga on Saturday.
Munir El Haddadi, deployed up front in place of the injured Neymar, fired Barca ahead in the second minute at the Rosaleda Stadium on the south coast after smart work from Luis Suarez.
However, the visitors were unable to exert their customary control and 12th-placed Malaga, whose relentless pressing unsettled the Spanish and European champions, netted a deserved equaliser in the 32nd minute.
Javier Mascherano surrendered possession in a dangerous area and the ball fell to midfielder Juanpi whose shot was deflected in off the former Liverpool player as he slid across to block.
Messi was back in the side after sitting out Wednesday’s 2-1 King’s Cup triumph at Athletic Bilbao as a precaution but the FIFA Ballon d’Or winner was largely anonymous in the first half.
Barca were much improved in the second period and took a 2-1 lead in the 51st minute when Messi cracked Adriano’s cross past keeper Carlos Kameni.
The Argentina captain was falling away from the ball as it dropped and he caught it perfectly on the volley to send it arrowing into the corner for his 11th goal of an injury-disrupted campaign.
Barca keeper Claudio Bravo then did well to palm away a shot from Ignacio Camacho in the 73rd minute and Kameni denied Messi a second with a superb one-handed save two minutes from time.
“We perhaps didn’t deserve to be drawing 1-1 at the break considering what we did and what they did in the first half,” Barca captain Andres Iniesta told Spanish television.
“We didn’t feel comfortable and Malaga were very well organised and made the most of it when we gave the ball away,” added the Spain international. “It shows how difficult it is to win in La Liga.”
Barca, who have a game in hand over their rivals, have 48 points with just over half the season played, one ahead of Atletico before Diego Simeone’s side host seventh-placed Sevilla on Sunday.
Real Madrid are four points adrift of Atletico in third place ahead of Sunday’s trip to Real Betis.
Fourth-placed Villarreal missed a chance to draw level on points with Real when they needed a late goal from defender Mateo Musacchio to salvage a point in a 2-2 draw at mid-table Espanyol.
Felipe Caicedo put Espanyol ahead in the fourth minute at their Cornella-El Prat stadium in Barcelona before Manuel Trigueros levelled 20 minutes later.
Gerard Moreno, who earned a second yellow card and was sent off a minute from time, made it 2-1 to the home side in the 40th minute and Musacchio headed in from an 88th-minute corner.
Celta Vigo, who are fifth, failed to take advantage of Villarreal’s stumble when they were beaten 3-0 at Rayo Vallecano.
Rayo and fellow strugglers Granada climbed out of the relegation places after Granada won 3-2 at home to Getafe.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez and Pritha Sarkar)