BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — The game that the Spanish league had wanted to play in the United States still featured a traditional attraction of the competition — Lionel Messi scoring a goal.
Messi coolly put the result beyond doubt in a 2-0 victory for Barcelona at 10-man Girona on Sunday, helping the defending champions to keep their five-point league lead with an eighth straight win.
The Argentine’s goal came with Girona threatening to equalize despite losing defender Bernardo Espinosa to a second yellow card shortly after halftime.
But a gaping hole appeared at the back when Luis Suarez played Jordi Alba clear. The left back quickly spied Messi arriving at the top of the box unmarked, and Messi did the rest by floating his shot over Yassine Bounou to crush the hosts’ comeback hopes in the 69th minute.
“They caused us more trouble with 10 men than with 11. It was an evenly contested match,” Alba said. “It was decided in the details, and by our talent up front. Leo never misses.”
It was Messi’s 10th goal in a seven-game scoring streak in the league. He leads the competition with 19 goals in 21 rounds.
The Spanish league had originally tried to play the match near Miami in an effort to promote and expand the top-tier brand, but the plan fell through when the Spanish federation withheld its necessary approval. Instead of traveling 7,500 kilometers (4,600 miles) to Florida, Barcelona went 100 kilometers (60 miles) up the Mediterranean coast to Girona’s Montilivi Stadium.
Right back Nelson Semedo gave Barcelona the ninth-minute lead when a loose ball fell to him in the area.
But Girona stifled Barcelona’s attack and threatened to equalize on several occasions through striker Cristhian Stuani.
Stuani’s best chance came late in the first half when Marc-Andre ter Stegen got low to block his shot. Teammate Pere Pons came close to finishing off the rebound, only for Gerard Pique to clear his shot from the line.
Barcelona leads Atletico Madrid by five points, with Real Madrid trailing by 10.
Karim Benzema put on a master class for strikers in a 4-2 win for 10-man Madrid at Espanyol.
Benzema struck four minutes into the game and added Madrid’s third. He also threw in several smart passes for his teammates that went close to producing more goals.
“This just confirms what he has been doing all season long and for most of his career,” coach Santiago Solari said about Benzema, who has 15 goals in all competitions this campaign.
Madrid finished the match without both starting centerbacks. Sergio Ramos, who scored Madrid’s second goal, picked up a knock that led to his substitution at halftime, while Raphael Varane saw a direct red for fouling Pablo Piatti with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Gareth Bale completed the scoring for Madrid. Espanyol got goals from Leo Baptistao in the first half and a late strike by Roberto Rosales.
Athletic Bilbao continued its rebound under coach Gaizka Garitano by beating Real Betis 1-0 for a fourth victory during a seven-game unbeaten run.
Iker Muniain scored the only goal in the 21st when the midfielder used a deft one-touch control to open an angle and slot home a left-footed strike.
Betis pinned Bilbao into its area for most of the second half, but the Basque club held on even after losing Oscar de Marcos to a direct red card for a studs-first tackle into the back of Sidnei’s leg with seven minutes remaining.
Celta Vigo is clearly missing striker Iago Aspas.
Since it lost the Spanish international to a right-leg muscle injury in a loss at Barcelona, Celta has gone on to lose four more games.
After squandering the lead in a 2-1 loss against Valladolid, it was left in 17th place and the brink of the relegation zone.
Also, Real Sociedad was held 0-0 at home by last-placed Huesca.
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