Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets 8/10 as Barcelona battle to beat Atletico
Lionel Messi's spectacular first-half free-kick handed Barcelona a crucial 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou to send the unbeaten league leaders eight points clear of their opponents at the top of the table.
Diego Simeone's challengers started cautiously but ended up with four strikers on the pitch although Barcelona held firm to earn a narrow but deserved triumph.
Barcelona had no time to rest after Thursday's disappointing draw against Las Palmas but still managed to score a hard-fought victory over Atletico, one that puts them on the brink of the title. It wasn't always pretty but Barcelona slugged away, going blow-for-blow with their hyper-physical opponents and got the win.
"This is how you win La Liga. You have to suffer," said Sergio Busquets.
Andres Iniesta went off injured in the 36th minute with a hamstring problem and pending further tests, he's now a doubt to face Chelsea in the Champions League on Mar. 14. With Philippe Coutinho cup-tied for that match, Barcelona may be short of ideas in midfield if the skipper doesn't make it.
The Catalans also failed to create many chances although unlike against Las Palmas, this time they didn't pay the price.
Manager rating (out of 10)
7 -- Valverde chose to match Simeone with a 4-4-2 and picked Coutinho ahead of Paulinho for the "extra" spot in the team alongside his 10 usual starters. It worked, with the former Liverpool playmaker causing Atletico problems and forcing the visitors onto the back foot. Using Paulinho would have given Atletico more onus to attack.
Player ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 6 -- The German goalkeeper had a surprisingly quiet afternoon even up against Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann. His distribution was good and he took crosses well, in the absence of shots to save.
DF Sergi Roberto, 6 -- Although Dani Alves' departure makes Barcelona a less dangerous side, they do look more solid in defence with Sergi Roberto in that position. The midfielder has nearly perfected his play in the right-back spot and didn't put a foot wrong even though his attacking influence was limited.
DF Gerard Pique, 8 -- The centre-back scared Barcelona fans when he went down for a long period in the second half, having started this game despite a niggling knee problem, but his performance was exemplary. Pique was dominant in the air and a true leader at the back, cutting out attacks early and accurately.
DF Samuel Umtiti, 7 -- In recent weeks Umtiti's form has dipped slightly but he was superb on this occasion, showing no signs of pressure in one of the biggest matches of his career to date. One nonchalant flick in the first half to keep the ball away from Atletico's press was a highlight and shows how much confidence he has in possession.
DF Jordi Alba, 6 -- Although the Spain international has been one of Barcelona's best players this season, this was one of his quieter displays. At the back he was competent and quick to shut down danger, going forward he was more responsible than he usually needs to be.
MF Sergio Busquets, 8 -- Barcelona's timekeeper was immense in a hugely physical encounter, especially in the first half as he helped his side overrun the visitors. In the second period, Busquets came close to a rare goal with a volley that Jan Oblak tipped away and he showed his dedication to the cause by harrying the ball back moments later.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 8 -- The Croatia international is extremely selfless, understanding that his job this season is to help support Busquets, mop up at the back and run where Barcelona need him to be, rather than where he wants to be. Won the ball back multiple times and was booked for a cynical foul on Angel Correa.
MF Andres Iniesta, 7 -- The Barcelona captain displayed his usual quality on the ball early on and became a target for Atletico players, with Saul Niguez giving him a barge that left him prone on the turf. In an unrelated incident he suffered a hamstring injury and had to be replaced in the 36th minute, meaning he is now a doubt for the game against Chelsea on Mar. 14.
MF Philippe Coutinho, 6 -- The Brazil playmaker is so comfortable on the ball it looks like he's been part of the Barcelona team for years. However he still has to offer much more in attack. Some mazy dribbles caused Atletico problems but he lacked the final crucial pass.
FW Lionel Messi, 7 -- For the third league came running Messi scored a free-kick, taking his tally for five in 2018. It was also his 600th career goal and what the game lacked in quality, his goal made up for alone. Beyond that he was kept under lock and key though the damage was already done.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 -- Battling and scrapping away with his compatriots Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez, Suarez put in a shift as usual. Chances were at a premium with Simeone's side doing all they could to deny him and Messi. Eventually the striker found the net in the second half but was correctly ruled offside.
MF Andre Gomes, 4 -- Picked over Paulinho and Ousmane Dembele to replace the injured Iniesta, this was another big chance for the Portugal midfielder. He's had plenty but they often go to waste like this one. Squandered an early chance after good work by Messi with a limp ball that trickled into Oblak's hands. Went on to be largely invisible after the break.
MF Paulinho, NR -- Replaced Coutinho with the clock ticking down.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.