Barcelona went to the city of Madrid, beat capital minnows Leganes 3-0, and left Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid 11 points behind them ahead of the big derby on Saturday night.
It was not a sparkling performance but Luis Suarez ended his month-long goal drought and Ernesto Valverde’s team have now won 11 of 12 games played this season.
‘I was not anxious about not scoring,’ said Suarez after the game.
‘We are establishing a good lead at the top but we have to maintain it.’
There was a strange start to the match with Leganes giving away a foul inside the first second of the game when former Watford forward Nordin Amrabat tried to dribble from the kick-off without passing to a team-mate.
The new rules this season mean the forward does not have to kick the ball forward, but he does still have to pass it.
Suarez had the ball in the net inside the first five minutes. He started the move with a nice cushioned pass and then finished it from Jordi Alba’s pass but the flag had incorrectly been raised against the Barcelona left-back.
Suarez had not scored since October 14 but he’d had two weeks off and reports in Barcelona suggest he has had growth factor injections to help his right knee recover from a cyst.
He had never gone six games without a goal since signing for Barcelona and on the half-hour he was presented with a chance he could not miss.
Paco Alcacer fizzed a cross-shot in from the right and keeper Ivan Cuellar misjudged it. He found himself the wrong side of the ball as it threatened to creep in at the keeper’s near post.
He adjusted his position and, perhaps dazzled by the sun, spilled it straight down on to Suarez toe. He buried it and Barcelona were ahead.
Bad news followed the good news. There was a yellow card for Gerard Pique after some pushing and pulling between him and Amrabat.
The caution means he is now suspended for next week’s game against Valencia. Mascherano is injured so it will be Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen against the team currently lying second in La Liga.
Barcelona just about deserved their half-time lead but Pique was furious as he walked off at half-time remonstrating with the referee whose yellow seemed harsh and will now cost him his place in next weekend’s vital game.
Suarez was booked at the start of the second half and it was unjust. Leganes keeper Cuellar had put an arm across his neck, Suarez had raised an arm to remove the keeper’s and Cuellar had gone to ground holding his face.
Leganes had started the second period well and Barcelona brought on Paulinho and Aleix Vidal as they pushed for the second goal.
When it came once again it was the Alcacer-Suarez connection.
The former Valencia forward shot from the right and when the ball was cleared Suarez thumped in the rebound with a shot that cannoned off a defender as it beat Cuellar.
Leganes coach Asier Garitano had brought on Claudio Beauvue at half time and he had almost pulled a goal back with their first attack of the second half only to fail to beat Ter Stegen. The German stopper was outstanding again after Barcelona’s second goal denying Amarabat with another one-on-one save.
It had been a strange game – one in which an alien watching football for the first time might have wondered about the Barcelona number 10 strolling through the match making very little impact save until a late shot that Cuellar palmed away.
Even with an uncharacteristically poor display Messi still grabbed an assist when his shot was blocked and Paulinho swept in the third goal of the game.
Barcelona are winning without playing well at the moment – the mark of Champions. Ter Stegen had been outstanding and Suarez was back in the goals.
‘We are not going to apologise for winning games,’ said Ernesto Valverde two weeks ago the same applied here.
Barça are not brilliant just yet but they are top, and by some margin.