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Messi stars as Barcelona edge Sevilla to stay in title hunt

BARCELONA, Spain, Feb 27, (AP): Lionel Messi scored after setting up Ousmane Dembele for the opener to secure a 2-0 victory at Sevilla on Saturday, lifting Barcelona into second place in the Spanish league. Dembele netted in the 29th minute when Messi played him clear on a quick attack to end Sevilla’s excellent defensive streak of five straight clean sheets in the league. Messi then capped a complete performance by his team in the 85th when he dribbled through the area and beat goalkeeper Yassine Bounou on a second try.

It was Messi’s league-leading 19th goal. Barcelona’s victory left them two points behind leaders Atlético Madrid, which have two more matches to play. Sevilla were left in fourth place after the end of their run of six straight victories in the league. While Barcelona ensured they stayed in the title hunt, they appear to have lost two young players to injury. Midfielder Pedri González, one of Koeman’s most used players, seemed to hurt his lower right leg with around 20 minutes remaining. Pedri was replaced by fellow 18-year-old Ilaix Moriba, who helped Messi score when he exchanged a quick short pass with the star on his slalom through the box.

After getting the ball back from Ilaix, Messi dribbled around Fernando Reges and scrambled a save by Bounou of his first shot into the net. Center back Ronald Araújo went on as a second-half substitute after returning from a left ankle injury that had sidelined him for five games. He lasted fewer than 20 minutes before he went down, holding his left leg and was substituted by Koeman even though he wanted to play on.

Barcelona will meet Sevilla again on Wednesday needing to overcome a 2-0 first-leg loss in the return leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal. Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said that as long as the team maintained this ambition, they could overcome the injuries. Athletic Bilbao drew at Levante 1-1, five days before they meet again to decide which advance to the final of the Copa del Rey.

Roger Martí scored his 10th goal of the season for Levante after the striker converted a 34-minute penalty following Unai Núñez’s foul of Jorge de Frutos in the area. Raúl García equalized in the 56th from a penalty conceded by Nikola Vukcekic’s foul of Álex Berenguer. The stalemate left Levante in eight place and Bilbao in ninth.

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