Jeremy Mathieu scored an own-goal on his return to Camp Nou as Barcelona laboured to a 2-0 win over Sporting CP with Lionel Messi a second-half substitute.
Coach Ernesto Valverde opted to rest his side’s star player and watched as the likes of Luis Suarez and Aleix Vidal misfired for almost an hour against Jorge Jesus’ well-drilled Sporting team.
Paco Alcacer scored the opener moments before Messi’s 61st-minute introduction, which prompted a marked improvement in Barcelona’s play as what was only a second win in five outings for Valverde’s men ended with the home side in control.
Sporting went into the game needing a famous victory and Olympiacos to deny Juventus maximum points, but neither materialised despite a respectable performance in which the Portuguese sid matched LaLiga’s leaders for long periods.
After an acrimonious Barcelona exit at the end of last season, Mathieu’s late own goal ensured the result ensured the result flattered his former club, who failed time and time again to make their final pass count until Messi came on.
Valverde will hope his side can continue to build momentum ahead of a Clasico with Real Madrid on December 23, while Sporting drop into the Europa League knockout stages.
Sporting kept Barcelona quiet for the opening 12 minutes of the game, and even then the home side mustered nothing more than a speculative Denis Suarez shot that flew over from 20 yards.
Aleix Vidal ballooned high of the target from the edge of the box five minutes later, but Andre Gomes went closer with a low drive from similar range that flew narrowly wide.
The unusually quiet Luis Suarez burst into the penalty area and rounded Sebastian Coates after 23 minutes, only to be denied by a good save from Rui Patricio at his feet.
Bruno Fernandes gave Jasper Cillessen a rare touch of the ball when the Barcelona goalkeeper saved his tame shot, before Denis Suarez danced through a line of defenders on the edge of the Sporting box but misjudged his pass to Vidal and the first half ended goalless.
Jesus sent on Gelson Martins and Bas Dost for the second half as Sporting rolled the dice to try to force a result and the former dragged a shot wide of Cillessen’s goal in the 52nd minute.
With Messi stripping off on the touchline, Barcelona took the lead just before the hour mark when Denis Suarez’s corner found Alcacer at the near post and he flicked the ball into the far corner with a well-placed header.
Before Messi could contribute on the pitch, Dost found himself with a wonderful chance to equalise five yards from goal and with only Cillessen to beat, but the goalkeeper made a brilliant reaction save to keep Barcelona ahead.
With nine minutes left, Denis Suarez fed Messi who curled a sweetly struck left-footed shot towards goal, but Patricio saved one-handed at full stretch.
There was a cruel twist in the tale for Sporting and Mathieu, who turned Denis Suarez’s cross into his own net to prevent the ball reaching Alcacer at the far post, and his intervention gave Barcelona a margin of victory they barely deserved.