Lionel Messi has not scored a single league goal this season. Not once. But this time he came perilously close: there were only three minutes to go on Sunday night when he robbed Diego Godín, approached Thibault Courtois and dinked the ball over him and into the net. It was his 25th goal of the season, Barcelona's fourth of the night and the eighth time in his past eight starts that Messi had scored two; this season in the league, he has scored a hat-trick and he has scored two, 11 times, but never a single goal. Against Atlético Madrid he nearly did – and it felt like something was missing.

When the ball settled in the net, at last it felt complete, right. No one was going to be let down after all. It was almost as if there was a kind of relief, a kind of: OK, you're done now. Which pretty much says it all: Messi has set the bar so high that only one brilliant goal is not enough and that brilliant goal doesn't even seem so brilliant. It was Barcelona against Atlético Madrid, first versus second. Barcelona were winning 3-1 against a team that had conceded only seven times all season, moving the ball round the pitch with a pace and precision that was stunning, taking a decisive step towards the title, but … but, well, watching Barcelona control a game is so normal. And Messi had only scored once.

When his second goal went in, it was as if it could finally count as a great match, which it was. If Barcelona controlled the final hour, it hid just how much they had struggled before then. If the excitement and the quality of the first 45 minutes stuck in the mind, it hid just how good the second 45 minutes were too. Worthy of its billing: Barcelona beat their nearest challengers at Camp Nou, the two top scorers face-to-face, Messi and Falcao. The tiger versus the flea. And, like El Clásico in October, both turned up.

They got three between them. In total, there were five goals, all of them brilliant. The first was surprisingly subtle, a velvet glove suddenly slipped over that iron fist; the second was the kind of goal that needed Alan Partridge on the commentary; and the third was all about the pause that defines its perpetrator, defenders sliding past like cartoon characters off a cliff. The fourth would have been brilliant had it been scored by anyone other than Messi. And the fifth was the one that wrapped it up, the genius in its simplicity. The loose ends tied were tied up at last and in lovely big bows.

When Falcao got the opening goal, he had already missed two chances. The first, a header off the post; the second a dash through, his shot pulled just wide. When he got the third – another swift ball into space, reaching straight for Barcelona's throat – he pulled left, nudged it away from Sergio Busquets and set off running. He shot forwards; alongside him, Busquets looked like he was trying to climb the Gladiators' Travelator, slipping further and further behind. Victor Valdés came out and Falcao scooped it over him left-footed, another demonstration of Falcao's variety, his mastery of finishing. Valdés, expecting something else, just stumbled the other way.

Against Real Madrid, Atlético came up against a problem: Madrid are set up to counterattack too. Their style simply did not work. Against Barcelona, it did. 1-0 and deservedly so. Aggressive, direct and in the lead. Barcelona were facing a first league defeat of the season. "We were great," Atlético's captain Gabi said. "But …"

But? "But they were better."

Atlético were the better side until Adriano came inside and battered a 25-yard shot in off the bar, a mirror image of his goal against Valencia: right to left this time, left to right then. A corner then dropped for Busquets. About to hit it, he instead paused, just as he does deep in midfield; that moment that seems to the rest of the stadium to be a moment of doubt but for Busquets is a moment of thought; that risk that turns out, time and time again, not to be a risk at all. Mario Suárez flew out towards him … and out past him. A soft-shoe shuffle and it went into the top corner.

By half-time Atlético had had more shots, but Barcelona were 2-1 up and had started to take control, playing their way back into the game. Don't look for chances; they will look for you. Or, more to the point, for Messi. He curled a wonderful shot into the bottom corner: Barcelona had emerged ahead. Then Messi dinked one over the goalkeeper. First versus second and Barcelona were 4-1 up. Sixteen games into the season, they have won 15 and drawn only one. Forty-six points from a possible 48. As for Messi, he has scored more than 15 teams in Spain. "Messi is the best player in the world. I'm very proud that he is Argentinian," Diego Simeone said. "This league is boring: Barcelona are just in a different league to the rest."

Including Real Madrid. On Sunday night, Atlético slipped nine points behind Barcelona, while Real slipped 13 behind. Time to focus on the cup, then. Six months of the season to go and the league's over already. Twenty-two games left; 22 games to … to what, exactly? "We can't throw away the league," Sergio Ramos said. "We can't give it up for lost," Xabi Alonso added. But barely 30 metres away, José Mourinho was doing just that. In midweek, Madrid's coach had expressed his relief that their defeat against Celta de Vigo had come in the Copa del Rey and not in the league because in the cup there's a second chance, in the league there's not. Four days later, the league had gone and Mourinho gave up.

An 87th-minute equaliser from Juan Albín gave Espanyol a 2-2 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday night, immediately before kick-off in Catalonia. It was Madrid's second draw at home; they have lost away at Getafe, Sevilla and Betis. They have been beaten in Europe and in the Copa del Rey. They have already dropped more points this season than in the whole of last. And this time there was no rebellion, no referees, no rants, just resignation. "The league's practically impossible," Mourinho said. "We cannot worry about whether we finish first, second or third. We have to continue as best we can. Ten points is a big gap in December and if it goes to 13, it is too big."

When Mourinho said that, Falcao had just scored. A moment's hope, soon snatched away. Thirteen points to claw back on a Barcelona team that have lost only two points all season. A Madrid team that cost almost half a billion Euros; a league title over before Christmas. The side that broke records last season is broken this. On Sunday night, fans sang: "We love you, Mourinho stay." They were Barcelona fans.

On Saturday morning, Real Madrid's president, Florentino Pérez, had publicly defended Mourinho exactly as the media said Florentino Pérez would do – a detail that seemed to pass everyone by – insisting that he was the victim of "unjustified attacks". On Saturday afternoon, a radio journalist was called into a room, alone, and confronted by six men. During the confrontation that followed, shouts audible on the other side of the wall, Mourinho insisted: "In football, I'm top; in journalism, you're shit." But Madrid are not top. They're not even second. Time to concentrate on the cups. "If you gave me the choice of being 25 points behind in the league and winning the 10th [European Cup], I'd take it," Iker Casillas said last week. Casillas said it. That may even have been part of Madrid's problem. Now it is their only solution.

Talking points

• David Navarro does it again … someone really should sellotape a pair of pillows to his elbows. Or just tie him to a chair.

• Six games, 12 teams, only seven goals. And thanks to a penalty or two. By the time Madrid-Espanyol kicked off, this was looking worryingly like the most boring weekend in months. But amidst the dozing there was another win for Levante, flying at home and in Europe, and a point that keeps Anquela in a job at Granada … for now. Joaquín Caparrós lost to a former team for the second time in a week and, with Mallorca dangerously close to relegation, he is dangerously close to the sack. Meanwhile, Sevilla's 2-0 defeat against Málaga leaves Míchel on the ropes, even though his side were actually pretty good in the first half. "When the results are bad, the manager's in danger," he said deadpan. More worrying still, the Sevilla fans chanted for the president's head. And when that happens, presidents tend to offer up the managers'.

• Aritz Aduriz: why not selling Fernando Llorente was even dafter than it seemed back in the summer. And it seemed pretty daft then.

Results: Getafe 1-1 Osasuna, Granada 0-0 Real Sociedad, Mallorca 0-1 Athletic, Sevilla 0-2 Málaga, Zaragoza 0-1 Levante, Valencia 0-1 Rayo, Madrid 2-2 Espanyol, Barcelona 4-1 Atlético. Tonight: Deportivo-Valladolid, Celta-Betis.

Latest La Liga standings