Left-back Jordi Alba produced a rare right-footed winner as measured La Liga champions Barcelona did just enough to dispatch Real Sociedad 2-1 on Saturday night.
A first half of few chances at Camp Nou came to life before the interval when uncapped French centre-back Clement Lenglet rose to flick home countryman Ousmane Dembele’s corner for his first top-flight goal for the leaders.
La Real, however, remained undaunted and midfielder Mikel Merino’s slide-rule pass was well converted by forward Juanmi past the hour mark. Parity would last for only two minutes as Alba then cut inside and curled home an unstoppable third goal of the campaign, restoring a nine-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid with five fixtures to fulfil and keeping their weekend opponents down in 10th.
Here are the Barca player ratings:
Marc-Andre ter Stegen – 6: Looked on with despondence when Juanmi slid in the leveller. Only faced two shots on target, despite La Real’s promise.
Nelson Semedo – 6: Portuguese right-back’s first La Liga start in three weeks was a solid, if not spectacular, affair.
Gerard Pique – 5: Movement of Juanmi left the veteran centre-back flatfooted for visitors’ goal. Might have longed for another rest.
Clement Lenglet – 7: Measured header broke the deadlock towards end of first half. Battled away with Jose.
Jordi Alba – 7: Cut inside and finished with real aplomb, via his unfavoured right boot. What a performer.
Arturo Vidal – 5: If the Chile battler was meant to keep a lid on Sociedad, his return of zero tackles or interceptions didn’t help.
Arthur – 7: Brazil centre midfielder’s enforced removal on 55 minutes after a collision was only true worry of night. Recovered 94.9-per-cent pass accuracy.
Ivan Rakitic – 7: The Croatia midfielder’s work, as usual, was understated. Led the way with 63 passes as he, effectively, filled in for the rested Busquets.
Lionel Messi – 6: Talk of a hat-trick to reach 600 goals for Barca did not bear out, for once. Didn’t really look like scoring.
Luis Suarez – 5: Uruguay centre forward produced only one attempt on goal. A rare game spent as a passenger in 2019.
Ousmane Dembele – 7: Recovery from injury continued with this cameo, containing the corner for Lenglet’s opener.
Sergio Busquets – 6: Played longer than expected after Arthur suffered a knock.
Philippe Coutinho – 6: Made no real impact, notching one shot and one key pass.
Sergi Roberto – N/A: Just the four touches for the 89th-minute replacement.
Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde insisted Saturday’s clash with Real Sociedad is “not just another game” as he looks to move a step closer to wrapping up the LaLiga title.
Barca hold a nine-point advantage over Atletico Madrid at the summit with six games to go and are closing in on a fourth domestic crown in five seasons, although they were held to a goalless draw at Huesca last time out in the league.
Valverde’s men are also into the Champions League semi-finals, where they will face Liverpool, and a Copa del Rey final against Valencia, and the temptation to manage the fitness of his squad by rotating in the coming weeks could be difficult to resist.
But the former Athletic Bilbao boss is determined not to take his foot off the gas in pursuit of a third treble in the club’s history.
“The league is at stake and we know it,” he said at a press conference. “This game is not just another game, it’s a game that can be an important step towards the title. We know that.
“It’s a good season so far, but we want it to be a complete one. We’re top of the league, we’ve got an advantage, but we want to finish there.
“We’ve won the treble twice in history. It’s not something you can say you have won lots of times.”
If he plays, Sociedad will find Lionel Messi in fine form, with the Argentina star having scored 12 goals in his last eight matches, including two in the 3-0 win over Manchester United that secured their place in the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday.
That recent flurry sees Messi now only three short of reaching 600 goals for the club.
“I don’t know how to evaluate it,” added Valverde. “I’d like to have a selection of words that I could use so I wouldn’t keep repeating myself!
“He’s breaking every record, he’ll break many more and every time the fans come to watch him at Camp Nou, or any other ground, they expect something special and he always pulls it off. They go home happy.”
Sociedad sit 10th but already have a major scalp under their belt this season, having won 2-0 at Real Madrid in January.
“We go with the intention of winning, because there is no other way to face a game like this,” said head coach Immanol Alguacil. “We believe it. We have to play with a lot of personality and we are going to try it.
“We were able to win in Madrid and now we’ll see if we can do it in Barcelona.”
Barca will have Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique at their disposal after both men served a one-match ban at Huesca, while Valverde played down the impact of Philippe Coutinho’s controversial celebration in the win against United.
Having scored Barca’s third, the Brazilian placed his fingers in his ears in an apparent act of defiance against his critics after a difficult season.
“What surprises me is that people speak more about the gesture than the goal,” added Valverde. “The gesture is just a gesture.”
Barcelona’s record signing Philippe Coutinho lit up the Camp Nou on Tuesday with a spectacular long-range effort to help the Catalans seal the Champions League quarter finals tie against Manchester United.
He followed it up with a celebration that drew a lot of criticism. The Brazilian ran towards the stands with his fingers in his ears, which was interpreted as a jab at the supporters.
The winger clarified on social media that he had no intention of disrespecting anyone with his celebration.
“We should never listen to people who want to demotivate us,” Coutinho posted in an Instagram explanation.
“Because their speech will distract us from our real goal. I have never disrespected anyone inside or outside of football.
“I always look forward to the future with ambition.”
All eyes will be on Coutinho as he returns to Anfield in three weeks’ time as Barcelona look to overcome Liverpool in the semis.