Lionel Messi had to cut short a rare rest break to help Barcelona beat Leganes 3-1 and protect their five-point lead at the top of Spain's La Liga yesterday.

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 Thursday, coach Ernesto Valverde took the risk of leaving his best player on the bench against a Leganes side that upset Barcelona 2-1 in September.

That move appeared smart after Ousmane Dembele put Barcelona ahead in the 32nd minute. But Leganes took advantage of a moment of complacency from their hosts when Martin Braithwaite converted their only scoring opportunity to pull level in the 57th minute.


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 took charge. The club's all-time top scorer raced across the top of the area before firing a powerful left-foot shot that keeper Ivan Cuellar blocked, only for Suarez to knock in the rebound.

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 Messi can turn a match but we have to get used to seeing Messi play half an hour," Valverde said of his 31-year-old star.

Messi missed five games in October and November while recovering from a right-arm fracture. Otherwise, he had missed only one other match this season to rest.

Suarez's goal puts him in the top five all-time scorers for Barcelona with 167. Messi leads them all with 577 goals.

- AP