Barcelona: Lionel Messi had to cut short a rare rest break to help Barcelona beat Leganes 3-1 and protect their five-point lead in La Liga on Sunday.
Messi came off the bench at Camp Nou with the score at 1-1 in the second half and set up a goal for Luis Suarez before adding one of his own.
In a month packed with matches and a Copa del Rey clash with Sevilla looming on Wednesday, coach Ernesto Valverde took the risk of leaving his best player on the bench against a Leganes side that had upset Barcelona 2-1 in September.
That move appeared to be the right one after Ousmane Dembele put Barcelona ahead in the 32nd minute.
But Leganes took advantage of a moment of complacency from their hosts when winter reinforcement Martin Braithwaite converted their only scoring opportunity to pull level in the 57th.
To make matters worse, Dembele saw his excellent performance end with an injury to his left leg.
But Messi had gone on a minute before in the 64th and he took charge. The club’s all-time top scorer raced across the top of the area before launching a powerful left-footed shot that goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar blocked with one hand, only for Suarez to rush in and finish it off.
Messi then exchanged four passes with Jordi Alba in quick succession before scoring his league-leading 18th goal of the campaign in stoppage time.
“It’s clear that Messi can turn a match around, but we have to get used to seeing Messi play half an hour,” Valverde said about his 31-year-old star.
Suarez’s goal puts him in the top five all-time scorers for Barcelona with 167. Messi leads them all with 577 goals.
Barcelona stayed comfortably ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid with Real Madrid third 10 points back.