Barcelona crack under Las Palmas pressure to boost Atletico Madrid and other talking points

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Barcelona defender Thomas Vermaelen got stuck in against Las Palmas.

The La Liga title race has roared back into life after a subdued Barcelona drew 1-1 at Las Palmas ahead of Sunday’s summit meeting with Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou.

Argentina superstar Lionel Messi struck a marvelous free-kick in the 21st minute to give the visitors the lead at relegation-threatened opponents. But Las Palmas refused to be cowed and a penalty from Jonathan Calleri, given either for a tug by right-back Sergi Roberto or handball from left-back Lucas Digne, earned a deserved share of the spoils.

Here are our talking points from a tough test on the road for the Catalans:

BARCA’S PRESSURE POINT

The timing of the trip to the Canary Islands raised the ire of Barca head coach Ernesto Valverde, yet this full-bloodied clash represented a dummy run for what awaits on Sunday at Camp Nou against Atleti.

Paco Jemez’s Las Palmas showed no fear against their esteemed visitors, nor did they show too much respect – they could not afford to coming into the fixture inside the relegation zone.

High pressing, flying tackles and rapid counter-attacks followed. By 69 minutes, Thomas Vermaelen was the only starting defender from both sides not yet to receive a booking.

This was straight from the playbook of Atleti warrior, Diego Simeone.

In the first half alone, Barca players were dispossessed five times, suffered eight fouls and notched an average-pass-success rate of 82 per cent – in the preceding 6-1 mauling of Girona this last figure upon the final whistle stood at 88 per cent.

This approach had the visitors visibly rattled. After the break, they conceded a penalty and crafted few opportunities of note.

Simeone can smell a first top-flight win in this fixture since 2010 to blow the title race wide open.

MESSI’S MASTERY KNOWS NO BOUNDS

Messi is a statistician’s dream.

His boundless brilliance pushes the limits of the sport constantly, moving him ahead of his peers in a plethora of ways.

The Argentina icon wasn’t at his best on Thursday night. An under-cooked pass to strike partner Luis Suarez in the early running ruined a two-on-one, while he was dispossessed a leading five times for his team.

But, of course, he still managed to get on the score sheet and he still managed to break new ground.

Messi’s majesty has made free-kicks on the edge of the penalty area feel like penalty kicks, such is the danger.

As he powered a resounding, unstoppable effort high into countryman Leandro Chichizola’s goal on 21 minutes, it moved him onto four free-kick goals for the season. In the process, he moved ahead of ex-Barca team-mate Neymar and emerging Lyon star Nabil Fekir to become Europe’s most prolific this term.

Also, all four have come in the last two months. This is the same amount as the whole of 2012, which was his best return in a calendar year.

TIME FOR A CHANGE?

The wheels are not coming off Barca’s title bid – but they have started to wobble.

This was their third stalemate in La Liga from their last five fixtures, after previously winning the last seven. The record unbeaten run now stretches to 33 matches, yet what worth is this when draining draws start creeping in?

Only 10 shots were fired in at Las Palmas and just four were on target – down from 21 and 14 from the weekend.

An obvious cure to this ailment is for Valverde to shake up his options.

The 54-year-old is unlikely to veer away from his 4-4-2 formation at this stage of the season. Now, he must assess the best parts.

Brazil international Paulionho has been trusted to start most clutch matches since joining from Guangzhou Evergrande last summer, such as El Clasico at Real Madrid and last week’s Champions League-trip to Chelsea. But he looked lethargic at Las Palmas, having no shots and making one tackle before understandably being substituted just past the hour mark.

For 33-year-old Andres Iniesta, it’s now just one assist and no goals from his last 12 run-outs in La Liga. This department could do with freshening up – both substitutes Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele provided positive influences at Estadio Gran Canaria.

In defence, France centre-back Samuel Umtiti repeated his lackadaisical trick from Girona. Fortunately for him this time, a sloppy foul and a booking on Oghenekaro Etebo was the only outcome, rather than a repeat of Portu’s embarrassing goal.

Belgium’s Vermaelen was again impressive as Gerard Pique was given a rest on Thursday night. If Valverde wants a change in defence, he’s an emerging option.

The gap at the top is now five points. To prevent it becoming an unbearable two points, Valverde must be both astute and brave.

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Barcelona player ratings as Lionel Messi free-kick magic cannot stop poor Las Palmas draw

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Barcelona icon Lionel Messi celebrates his goal in the 1-1 draw at Las Palmas in La Liga.

Barcelona saw important points in La Liga’s title race drain away as Lionel Messi’s superb free-kick was levelled by Argentine striker Jonathan Calleri’s penalty for dogged Las Palmas in a 1-1 draw, ramping up the pressure ahead of Sunday’s summit meeting with Atletico Madrid.

In a patchy performance by Barca, superstar Messi’s set-piece from the edge of the area in the 21st minute was the highlight. The relegation-threatened hosts gave everything and their determination was rewarded in the 48th minute when Calleri stepped up from 12 yards after a tug from a corner by right-back Sergi Roberto.

Here are our ratings from Estadio Gran Canaria as Las Palmas became only the sixth La Liga team this season to deny Barca victory:

Marc-Andre ter Stegen – 6: Precious little to do, except pick the ball out of his net. Calleri’s penalty was Las Palmas’ only shot on target.

Sergi Roberto – 5: Made little impression as an attacking force and appeared to be guilty of giving the penalty away for a tug on Matias Aguirregaray. With Portugal right-back Nelson Semedo out injured until next month, needs to be better.

Thomas Vermaelen – 7: Has surely given manager Ernesto Valverde food for thought with another assured display. Only starting defender not to be booked and his two interceptions was the joint most for Barca.

Samuel Umtiti – 5: This has been a troubled week for Barca’s previous rock at the back. Repeated the absent-mindedness witnessed for Portu’s opener in the 6-1 beating of Girona at the weekend, this time the only repercussion being a booking. Form of Vermaelen is a worry for him.

Lucas Digne – 5: Delivered a few poor crosses, was booked and penalty could have been for a handball.

Aleix Vidal – 4: Rarely looks up to the standard demanded of a Barca player. A pass accuracy of 68.2 per cent was unforgivable as he cracked under Las Palmas’ press. Was no surprise when he was the first player hooked.

Sergio Busquets – 6: Played higher up the pitch in response to the host’s positive attitude. Did look uncharacteristically cumbersome a few times, although his tally for tackles and interceptions wasn’t bettered by any Barca player.

Paulinho – 5: This was a game to forget for the Brazil centre midfielder as he moved back into the XI. Made little impression on or off the ball before being substituted past the hour mark. Could even have been dismissed before half-time for a second booking.

Andres Iniesta – 6: There were flashes of brilliance from the Spain great, one curling shot only just missed. Positive displays of replacements Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele show the 33-year-old’s time as a guaranteed starter is fast coming to an end.

Lionel Messi – 7: Even on an off day by his standards, was still comfortably Barca’s best player. His 21st-minute free-kick was utterly sublime and made him the most-prolific scorer via this method (four) across Europe’s top-five leagues in 2017/18.

Luis Suarez – 5: Was left to curse a rare under-hit pass from Messi in the early running. Had desperately searched in vain for a booking against Girona to miss this game, and didn’t want to commit too much with a possible ban against Atleti hanging over him.

SUBS

Philippe Coutinho- 6: Has magic in his boots, a slide-rule pass soon after coming on worth the price of admission alone. But couldn’t quite force the breakthrough.

Ivan Rakitic – 6: Would have dreamed of a better way to make his 200th appearance for Barcelona.

Ousmane Dembele – 6: Not everything he tried came off – not by a long shot. Yet his pace and desire to make things happen are things Barca should increasingly value.

Las Palmas' Argentinian forward Jonathan Calleri scores a penalty against Barcelona.

Las Palmas’ Argentinian forward Jonathan Calleri scores a penalty against Barcelona.

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Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi has a great gesture for artist who sent him hand-painted boots

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Uruguayan artist Lillian Cantero got the thrill of her life in January, thanks to Lionel Messi.

Cantero had hand-painted football boots with images of memorable moments from Messi’s career, and sent these special boots to Barcelona through a friend.

Lo and behold, in January, who should be holding the handcrafted boots but the Barcelona star himself. Cantero received a picture of Messi holding the boots she’d made for him, a scarcely believable moment for the artist.

“Since I started painting boots, it was always a dream of mine that Messi could enjoy one of my works,” she said.

“It is the pinnacle of my career in painting boots.”

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