Chelsea Champions League clash on mind of Barcelona stars during win at Malaga reveals Ernesto Valverde

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Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez starred for Blaugrana.

Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde accepted his players had Chelsea on their minds after coasting through the second-half of the 2-0 win over bottom club Malaga, who played for an hour with 10 men.

Even without star forward Lionel Messi, who was with his wife following the birth of their third son, Barcelona had too much for the hosts.

Luis Suarez headed in a fine opener after 15 minutes before Philippe Coutinho added a second with a neat flick and Malaga midfielder Samuel Garcia saw red following a rash tackle from behind on Jordi Alba.

The comfortable victory leaves Barca 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid, who host Celta Vigo on Sunday, at the top of LaLiga.

Valverde had resisted temptation to rest several key players ahead of next week’s Champions League match against Chelsea at the Nou Camp, with the last-16 tie finely poised at 1-1.

“In the second-half we began to subconsciously think about the match on Wednesday,” he said at a press conference reported by the Spanish press.

“Scoring early here was crucial, the red card made the match easier for us.

“We will have to suffer to progress past Chelsea.”

Ousmane Dembele continued to impress on his return from injury, setting up Coutinho’s goal.

Valverde said: “Dembele always tries, he has a place here, but he is a player who needs time, is young and had injuries, also there is pressure on him.

“Today is yet another step forward for him.”

Earlier on Saturday, Real Madrid, buoyed by their Champions League success over Paris St Germain, defeated Eibar 2-1 to record an eighth victory from their last nine matches in all competitions.

Despite the 15-point deficit, Valverde is not ruling Los Blancos out of contention just yet.

“Of course they’re a rival for the league title,” he said.

“They will remain to be a rival until the maths of the table suggest otherwise.

“I don’t discount them – and they would do well not to discount themselves either.”

Malaga, meanwhile, look set to lose their LaLiga status barring a remarkable turnaround over the closing weeks of the campaign, having slipped 11 points from safety.

Midfielder Garcia posted an apology on Twitter for his red card.

He wrote: “I want to apologise to the fans, my team-mates and Jordi Alba… my intention at all times is to play the ball. I’ve never been a player to kick out. I’m sad for the situation of the team.”

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Dembele beginning to adapt to Barca style and more things learned after Malaga success

Andy West 11/03/2018
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Ousmane Dembele is starting to have more of an impact.

Barcelona tightened their grip at the top of La Liga with a 2-0 win at bottom club Malaga, who played for an hour with 10 men.

Even without star man Lionel Messi, who was with his wife following the birth of their third son, Barcelona had too much for the hosts.

Luis Suarez headed in a fine opener after 15 minutes before Philippe Coutinho added a second with a neat flick and Malaga midfielder Samuel Garcia saw red following a rash tackle from behind on Jordi Alba.

The comfortable victory leaves Barca 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid, who host Celta Vigo on Sunday.

Here we look at three things learned from La Rosaleda…

BARCELONA KEEP IT SIMPLE

The absence of Messi – who pulled out on the day of the game to attend the birth of his third son, Ciro – barely mattered to Barca as they cruised to victory against a desperately weak Malaga team.

Once Suarez broke the deadlock thanks to a sublime assist from Jordi Alba, swiftly followed by a smartly taken second from Coutinho, the result was never in doubt – especially when Samu then got himself sent off for a brutal challenge on Alba – and the league leaders were able to step down a couple of gears and ease through the remainder of the game without a care in the world.

If anything, in fact, it was too easy for Barca against the well-beaten ten men in the second-half, with elements of sloppiness and laziness creeping into their play towards the end. But as a warm-up for Wednesday’s Champions League meeting with Chelsea this could not have been a more comfortable outing, and manager Ernesto Valverde can be highly satisfied with a job well done.

OUSMANE DEMBELE SLOWLY SETTLING

Slowly but surely, summer signing Ousmane Dembele is adapting to the demands of playing in this Barca team, which is in many ways highly unsuited to his natural style of play.

Whereas the team’s general approach is rapid passing with no more than two touches on the ball per player, Dembele much prefers to get plenty of contact with the ball and take on opposition defenders one on one.

This slows down the team’s passing rhythm but also provides a different kind of attacking approach through Dembele’s more directly penetrative style, and that kind of variety could prove invaluable over the next few weeks against deep-lying opponents who back themselves to prevent Barca from passing their way through to goal.

Dembele was especially bright in the first-half, creating the second goal for Coutinho and frequently looking dangerous around the edge of the box, and he could yet prove to be a very useful option for Valverde in the remaining weeks of the season.

MALAGA DOWN AND OUT

Malaga aren’t bottom of the table by accident, and in this outing they showed exactly why they have only won three games all season – and none at all since early December. The Andalusian team offered no real resistance, looking entirely resigned to their fate – which, barring a miracle, will be relegation.

The only time they did show some fight, it was done so in an unacceptable manner as midfielder Samu launched a horrible studs-up assault on Jordi Alba, giving referee Juan Martinez no choice but to issue a straight red card.

But on the whole the only Malaga player who showed a willingness to take the battle to Barcelona was striker Diego Rolan, with the rest of the team pretty much going through the motions and not even making the visitors’ life difficult.

Malaga are now 11 points away from safety and, even with ten games still remaining, the chances of them salvaging their season look extremely remote. Relegation lies in wait.

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Barcelona player ratings as Coutinho shines with goal in victory at Malaga

Andy West 11/03/2018
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On the scoresheet: Expensive buy Philippe Coutinho.

Barcelona‘s seemingly relentless march towards the La Liga title continued on Saturday as they brushed aside 10-man Malaga at La Rosaleda.

Even without star man Lionel Messi, who was with his wife following the birth of their third son, Barca had too much for their hosts as they recorded a 22nd win in 28 league games this season.

The contest was as good as over inside the opening half-hour with Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho putting Barca 2-0 up before Samu Garcia was sent off.

The Malaga winger was shown a straight red card in the 30th minute after flying in on Jordi Alba, leaving the Spain full-back writhing in agony.

Although Barca could not add to their goal tally against La Liga’s bottom club – who have now picked up just two points from a possible 36 since their last win – they had already done more than enough for the victory.

Ernesto Valverde’s unbeaten side are now 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid, who face Celta Vigo on Sunday. Real Madrid remain 15 points adrift of the leaders after Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice to earn them a 2-1 win at Eibar.

Here, we look at Barca’s player ratings:

Marc-Andre ter Stegen – 6: Had hardly anything to do, but performed whatever was needed with cool competence.

Sergi Roberto – 7: A quietly excellent performance at right-back, becoming more of an attacking presence as the game went on and starting to develop a good understanding with Dembele. Replaced with 15 minutes remaining.

Gerard Pique – 8: Continuing to play through a knee injury, but doesn’t looked bothered by his bandage and did everything right. Never looked troubled by Malaga’s attack and always used the ball constructively.

Samuel Umtiti – 7: Always in the right place at the right time and generally as solid as houses, but sparked one Malaga attack by needlessly conceding possession in midfield. Could have scored with a close-range header in the second-half.

Jordi Alba – 8: Delivered one of the assists of the season with a gorgeous angled cross straight onto Suarez’s head for the opener. Victim of an outrageous challenge by Samu but recovered to deliver his usual motoring performance down the left, before being rested for the final stages.

Ivan Rakitic – 7: Cruised through the contest in midfield. Sent a 20-yard strike curling just wide and another shot too close to Roberto. Almost looked bored by the end, so easy was he finding the game.

Sergio Busquets – 8: Captained the team in the absence of Messi and Iniesta and led by example with a cool and composed display. Misplaced a pass in the 22nd minute (yes, really!) but otherwise impeccable.

Paulinho – 6: Playing in an advanced role, he delivered a beautiful pass for Suarez’s early chance. Fired into the side-netting in another link-up with Suarez and was bright in the first-half, but faded badly after the break.

Ousmane Dembele – 7: Recorded a nice assist with a neat turn and cut-back for Coutinho to score. Building his confidence with some nifty flicks, tricks and dribbles, but was occasionally let down by his final ball. Less impact near the end and was replaced with five minutes left.

Luis Suarez – 7: Hard-charging performance. Unlucky not to score with an early low shot but made no mistake with a pinpoint header a minute later. Was a threat throughout but produced an embarrassing air-shot midway through the second half. Booked near the end and will miss the next game.

Philippe Coutinho – 7: Playing on the left of a front three, he made it 2-0 with a wonderfully flicked back-heel from Dembele’s cross. Heavily involved throughout and could have scored more, always looking to shoot from long-range, but occasionally sloppy in possession.

SUBSTITUTES

Andrew Gomes – 6: A new position for the Portuguese international, who came on at right-back for Roberto and performed competently.

Lucas Digne – 6: Relieved Alba at left-back for the final stages. Comfortable in his role and got forward well.

Aleix Vidal: Came on for Dembele near the end and had very little involvement.

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