Lionel Messi double helps Barcelona ease past Elche and cut gap to Atlético

Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona overcame an uninspiring first half to beat struggling Elche 3-0 at home in La Liga on Wednesday and keep leaders Atletico Madrid in their sights.

The Catalans created little in one of their worst first-half displays at the Camp Nou this season but found a breakthrough early in the second when Martin Braithwaite released Messi with a classy backheel and the Argentinian did the rest.

Barça, who failed to hold onto a narrow lead in Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to Cádiz, got an all-important second goal in the 69th minute when Frenkie De Jong received the ball after some clever play from Pedri. The Dutchman burst through the middle of the pitch and laid the ball off for Messi to finish. It was his 18th league goal of the season, extending his lead at the top of the scoring charts.

Left-back Jordi Alba struck the third goal from another Braithwaite assist to round off a victory which took Ronald Koeman’s side back above Sevilla and up to third in the La Liga table on 50 points, five behind Atlético but having played a game more.

Lionel Messi prods the ball past Elche goalkeeper Édgar Badía to put Barcelona ahead. Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Sunday’s frustrating draw at home to Cádiz had interrupted a seven-game winning streak in the league and added to the pain of last week’s 4-1 routing at home to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

“This will help our confidence a lot,” said Alba. “The draw was a huge blow to the whole team and showed that if we are not at our 100% best we find it very hard to win. We struggled on Sunday and in the first half here too but we were better in the second and the goals arrived.”

The hosts looked shaken by their recent form in an insipid first half in which they were fortunate not to fall behind when Argentinian forward Lucas Boyé caught a clear sight of goal inside the area for Elche but blasted over the bar.

Portuguese winger Francisco Trinçao was Barça’s liveliest player in the first half and was twice denied by Elche keeper Édgar Badía, who also did well to keep out a header from De Jong, with Alba somehow missing the target on the rebound.

Barça regained their composure after the break and opened the scoring thanks to clever combination play between Braithwaite and Messi but were let off the hook moments later when Boyé again missed the target for Elche, who stay in the bottom three after defeat.

Messi’s second goal calmed their nerves and they were hungry for more even after Alba’s strike. Substitute Antoine Griezmann hammered the crossbar from just inside the area and then missed the target from an even easier position moments later, the twin misses summing up the forwards’s low levels of confidence.