• Messi keeps Barca alive ahead of El Clasico

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    MADRID: Lionel Messi kept Barcelona’s title hopes alive with two goals and an assist to see off Real Sociedad 3-2 as Spain’s top two edged five-goal thrillers ahead of next weekend’s El Clasico.

    Earlier on Saturday (Sunday in Manila), Isco struck at the death to keep Real Madrid three points clear and with a game in hand at the top of the table after twice coming from behind to beat Sporting Gijon 3-2.

    Barcelona will need Messi on this form if they are to produce another miracle Champions League fightback against Juventus on Wednesday from a 3-0 first leg defeat suffered in midweek.

    “I am more than happy with the performance of the players and their ability to manage the frustration after what we experienced in the Champions League this week,” Barca boss Luis Enrique told Spanish TV station Movistar.

    Lionel Messi AFP PHOTO

    The Argentine is now just two off his 500th Barca goal as he smashed home an effort from 25 yards to open the scoring.

    Messi then took his tally to 45 goals in 44 games this season with a far less spectacular finish as he bundled home from close range after Geronimo Rulli had saved from Luis Suarez.

    However, Barca passed up the chance to enjoy a comfortable evening in a three-goal spell in as many minutes just before half time.

    Firstly, Samuel Umtiti turned Inigo Martinez’s driven effort into his own net.

    Paco Alcacer, deputising for the suspended Neymar, briefly restored Barca’s two-goal lead with a composed finish from Messi’s pass.

    Yet, Sociedad scored again almost straight from kick-off as Xabi Prieto cushioned William Jose’s cross into the bottom corner.

    Madrid can all but secure a first league title in five years with victory when they host Barca next weekend.

    But not for the first time this season they needed a late show after Duje Cop and Mikel Vesga put Sporting in front early in both halves.

    Isco’s fine individual effort and a towering header from Alvaro Morata ensured neither lead lasted more than a few minutes.

    And Isco sealed the comeback when he drilled home from the edge of the box.

    “This is the spirit of Real Madrid,” said Isco.

    “It is in the DNA of this shirt and this badge, we have shown it so many times and again today. Until the referee blows the full-time whistle it is not over.”

    The Spanish international is yet to agree a new contract with his current deal expiring at the end of next season.

    And Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane insists he wants Isco to stay despite his lack of starts and interest from Barcelona.

    “You know what I think of Isco, he is a player I like a lot and his place is here.”

    Isco’s late intervention bailed out his coach after Zidane made nine changes from the side that beat Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal in midweek.

    Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were left out of the squad entirely alongside the injured Gareth Bale, while Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Marcelo had to settle for a place on the bench.

    AFP

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