FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi, from Argentina, gestures after scoring against Athletic Bilbao during a Spanish La Liga soccer match at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona (Photo: 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 cap its 2-1 comeback win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.
Messi's 75th-minute free kick 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.
Barcelona moved provisionally into second place, four points behind leader Atletico Madrid. Madrid is two points behind Barcelona but with a game to play.
"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."
Messi set up his winner after earning a foul on the edge of the area by dribbling through Bilbao's backline, and the Argentina forward used his left foot to finally beat Gorka Iraizoz after the goalkeeper had denied him twice.
While not exactly his electrifying old self, Messi was active creating scoring chances from the start, but Alexis Sanchez sent Pedro's pass off the bar from close range in the 38th.
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.
The patience of Barcelona's fans began to fray when Bartra lost the ball near his area and Aduriz expertly drove the ball into the corner of the net.
And when Messi sent the ball wide one-on-one against Iraizoz a collective groan filled the stadium.
But Pedro was finally able to steer the ball in when Dani Alves started a move from the right flank to start Barcelona on its way to a much-needed victory.
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