Barcelona thanked Lionel Messi after his late winner against Athletic Bilbao kept the Catalans' lead at the top of the La Liga at five points.

It was the perfect way for the 23-year-old to mark his 250th competitive appearance for Barcelona having made his debut for the club back in 2003 as a 16 year old in a friendly against Porto.

David Villa's goal within 3 minutes of the start gave the impression of it being another routine Barcelona victory. However, Bilbao were resilient and troubled the champions thereafter. Andoni Iraola scored from the spot five minutes into the second half to equalize, making for an interesting game.

Barca continued their pursuit of the winner and Messi had two good penalty shouts denied. Bilbao held on till late, but there was nothing they could do when in the 78th minute, he popped up at the edge of the six-yard box to crash in a first-time shot from Dani Alves' cross.

It was maybe a bit harsh on Athletic Bilbao but the 2-1 win helped Barca maintain their lead at five points. It was an important victory considering arch-rivals Real Madrid's victory on Saturday.

Real Madrid's 2-0 cruise over Levante had seen them cut Barcelona's lead at the top to two points, albeit provisionally.

In a rain-drenched Santiago Bernabeu, Karim Benzema and Ricardo Carvalho scored to give Real Madrid their 22nd successive home win in all competitions. It also marked the ninth year of Jose Mourinho's incredible unbeaten home record. 'The Special One' last tasted defeat at home on 22 February, 2002 when his Porto side lost to Beira Mar.