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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 7 March 2021

Lionel Messi back to his magical best as Barcelona prove 'title race is still open' - in pictures

Ronald Koeman delighted by Barca's return to top form

Coach Ronald Koeman was glowing with pride after Barcelona's 3-2 win over Athletic Bilbao and said the performance was a benchmark for the remainder of the season.

Barca fell behind in the third minute to an Inaki Williams goal during a counterattack but responded emphatically with goals from Pedri and a resurgent Lionel Messi either side of halftime before Iker Muniain struck late for the hosts.

"That's the way we need to continue. I felt like we controlled the game the whole time and there were barely any dips in our play," Koeman said.

The win lifted Barca into third place in the standings and led Koeman to reassess previous pessimistic comments about his side's faint chances of catching leaders Atletico Madrid, who lead the Catalans by seven points with two games in hand.

"The title race is still open because the season is very long. There can be injuries, teams can have downturns and a side that looks very good can end up struggling," he said.

The Dutchman also praised Messi, who produced arguably his best performance of the season and was unlucky not to grab a hat-trick.

The Barca captain has had a relatively poor season by his own standards but his scores took him on to nine goals for the campaign, making him the joint top scorer in La Liga.

"Messi has given everything since day one, he has spent so many years at the very top level but it seems that now he has become even more effective," Koeman said. "He has always shown us his skill and his commitment but today he gave us his goals too."

On 18-year-old playmaker Pedri, Koeman added: "He plays with so much maturity despite his age and most importantly he uses his head."

Updated: January 7, 2021 11:33 AM

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