By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – La Liga champions Barcelona stayed on the heels of leaders Real Madrid by coasting to a 3-0 home win over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday as Lionel Messi became the club’s top scorer from free kicks.
Paco Alcacer scored his first league goal since joining from Valencia last year by turning in a pass from Neymar in the 18th minute while Messi whipped in an angled strike in the 40th, his 27th goal from a free kick for Barca.
Aleix Vidal scored the most impressive goal of the game by finishing off an audacious solo run in the 67th minute.
Barca stayed second in the standings, moving one point behind Real Madrid having played two games more. The leaders were due to visit Celta Vigo on Sunday but the game was postponed after the Balaidos stadium roof was damaged by storms.
Third-placed Sevilla visit Las Palmas on Sunday.
Fernando Torres made the most of a rare start by scoring both goals as Atletico Madrid beat neighbours Leganes 2-0 on Saturday.
Torres, who made his debut for Atletico against Leganes back in 2001, looked lively throughout the game. He could have scored as early as the second minute when he came charging at goal on the counter-attack but his attempted chip missed the target.
He won a penalty in the 14th minute and followed up on the rebound to put the hosts in charge after Antoine Griezmann saw his spot kick repelled by goalkeeper Iago Herrerin.
Torres scored his second goal in the 51st minute, beating the offside trap and latching on to a through ball before calmly lifting it over Herrerin. Atletico are fourth in the standings on 39 points.
Valencia were thrashed 4-0 at home by tiny Eibar, Voro’s side suffering a second straight defeat after their troubles had been temporarily eased by two consecutive wins. Valencia are 16th on 19 points, six above Sporting Gijon who occupy the final spot in the relegation zone. Eibar move up to seventh on 32 points.
Espanyol are also on 32 points, in eighth position, after winning 1-0 at Malaga, their third consecutive league win.
In Barcelona, coach Luis Enrique made six changes to the team that beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 in Wednesday’s King’s Cup semi-final first leg, resting top scorer Luis Suarez, and it looked a risky move as Athletic made a bold start.
Raul Garcia struck the post early on, after Inaki Williams dispossessed Vidal, while Williams headed just beyond the post soon after as Barca again lacked control without injured midfielders Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta.
However, they took the lead when Neymar cut inside from the left and held off four opponents to serve up the ball for Alcacer to finally score a league goal for Barca in his 11th appearance.
Athletic continued to cause problems but the Catalans doubled their advantage before the break when Messi smashed the ball from the right-hand side of the area straight past Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. The goal moved him ahead of Ronald Koeman as the club’s top set-piece specialist with 27 goals from free kicks in all competitions.
Early in the second half, Barca midfielder Rafinha was forced off with a bleeding head after colliding with his goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, while Pique was taken off with a suspected hamstring strain.
Messi was substituted in the 64th minute but the Argentine maestro was soon all smiles as he watched Vidal race towards goal on the counter, flicking the ball over a defender before arrowing the ball into the far corner for the third.
“Athletic are always difficult opponents and although at times we were imprecise it’s been a very positive day for us,” Luis Enrique told reporters.
“If we want to win all three competitions this season we have to use the whole squad and today the players who play less often showed their worth.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond and Clare Fallon)