BARCELONA, Spain - Alexis Sanchez scored a second-half goal as Barcelona and Lionel Messi struggled past Espanyol 1-0 Friday to remain top of the Spanish league.
Neymar drew two defenders before guiding a pass through both pairs of legs across goal for Sanchez to tap in at the far post for the easy 68th-minute winner.
Barcelona opened up a four-point advantage over Atletico Madrid, which plays Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, and a nine-point lead on Real Madrid. Madrid faces Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.
Messi is coming off one of his worst months of football, having not scored in the league since September.
The Argentina international, who has been troubled by an injury, lacked rhythm and made uncharacteristic turnovers at the Camp Nou Stadium to start November goalless.
Coach Gerardo Martino showed no concern over Messi's fitness.
"If we keep winning, little by little the best version of each football player will emerge," Martino said. "I don't think Messi is worried, nor do I think he's looking ahead to the World Cup."
The last time Messi went three straight league games without scoring was in April-May of 2011.
"What's happening is that he places the bar so high that when he doesn't score there appears to be a problem," Martino said. "But I don't see any problems."
Barcelona next plays against AC Milan in the Champions League on Wednesday. Messi, the four-time world player of the year, did score at Milan nearly two weeks ago.
Although Barcelona laboured to another victory, it maintained its impressive start under Martino, who has led the team to 34 of a possible 36 points.
Messi missed time with a right leg injury and by the end of the match he looked like he was either frustrated or feeling the effects of not being 100 per cent fit.
Barcelona dominated possession and controlled the tempo from the start, with Espanyol goalkeeper Francisco Casilla diving to make a save from Sanchez early on, with the Chilean enjoying some of the hosts' best opportunities throughout.
Espanyol needed over half an hour to register its first shot on goal, and it was nearly ahead in the 36th but Victor Valdes got a leg to Victor Sanchez's low shot following a smart run onto Thievy Bifouma's clever touch.
Andres Iniesta forced a save from Casilla with Dani Alves hitting the post in the ensuing scramble as Barcelona nearly went ahead just before halftime.
Casilla was in top form as he got a hand to Messi's well-guided header in the 54th. Messi then had two opportunities from free kicks but never came closer to scoring his first league goal since Sept. 28.
"Messi is always Messi even if he isn't scoring goals. Our aim was that neither he nor Neymar nor Alexis were comfortable," Espanyol coach Javier Aguirre said. "We tried to hurt Barca with the options we have. It didn't work and that's it."
Neymar nearly found the net moments before setting up Sanchez, and appealed for a foul when Casilla put him to the ground outside the area in the 76th with the empty net beckoning.
Espanyol should have tested Valdes in the 85th but Manuel Lanzarote showed poor finishing as he weakly headed over goal.
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