Barcelona talking points as treble dream, and Ousmane Dembele, tick over versus Real Sociedad

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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 talking points:

GETTING THE JOB DONE… ASAP

Expectation that head coach Ernesto Valverde might ring the changes for a second-successive week in the top flight dissipated an hour before kick-off.

Anchor man Sergio Busquets was the only member of the undisputed XI to watch from the substitutes’ bench, as Lionel Messi & Co. were entrusted with continuing the assault on the treble. There was also a start – among three switches – for recovering France winger Ousmane Dembele, who played only nine minutes in both Champions League quarter-final legs versus outclassed Manchester United because of a hamstring issue.

At the deep end of the campaign, when so many of his squad will be entering the ‘red zone in regards to injury risk and fatigue, this show of respect to a mid-table opponent who’d lost upon their preceding six trips to Camp Nou deserved inspection.

It certainly wasn’t without risk. The knock and enforced 55th-minute removal of growing Brazil centre midfielder Arthur represents a worry for the treble, treble, chasers.

Last weekend’s goalless draw at bottom-placed Huesca and this month’s troubling 4-4 stalemate at Villarreal showcased the danger of wholescale alterations.

Atleti’s late winner at Eibar also made the gap six points – with a game in hand – at kick-off. Uncomfortable, if a fresh slip-up occurred.

Even so, low-octane Barca did not burst out of the traps. Merino and Igor Zubeldia’s adroit smothering job in midfield helped cause Messi – who required a hat-trick to reach 600 club strikes – to go without a goal or assist in La Liga for the first time since March 2’s 1-0 triumph against Real Madrid.

By 55 minutes, Sociedad had six attempts on goal to their hosts’ five. They finished the contest, furthermore, with 51-per-cent possession to their exalted rivals’ 49 per cent.

Their delightfully crafted leveller that followed just past the hour mark was hardly unexpected.

Trusted hands then ensured, just, enough was done to win. Maximum reward from Barca, for minimal effort.

It also kept alive the prospect of wrapping La Liga up by Gameweek 35 on April 27, meaning indispensable ‘R & R’ can be enjoyed before the Champions League semi-final second leg at Liverpool on May 7 – and beyond.

DEMBELE ADDS DEPTH

If the Catalans are to make it an unprecedented trio of trebles in 2018/19, Dembele will be key.

His fearsome speed, on and off the ball, adds welcome depth to an ageing side that can look, by their unfathomable standards, a tad sluggish.

The €147 million winger moved onto six assists for the season in La Liga and Champions League with a lofted, in-swinging corner that found the forehead of compatriot Lenglet. This equalled his tally in those competitions from 2017/18’s heavily scrutinised debut campaign.

A curled effort on 58 minutes also dropped narrowly wide of Sociedad goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli’s far post, while his selfless decoy run – cleared by the video-assistant referee – facilitated Alba’s clincher.

Standing ovations were a rare sight for Dembele a year ago. How times – and his station – have changed.

PIQUE PUNISHMENT

A standout feature of 2018/19 for Barca has been Gerard Pique’s return to pre-eminence.

The 32-year-old underlined his status as a true great in both ties against United. His former employers regularly went vertical, producing an aerial battle that the centre-back relished.

Saturday evening, however, showed a glimpse of why a change of the guard is, reportedly, being procured with Ajax’s coveted teenage sensation Matthijs de Ligt.

La Real forward Juanmi’s movement and pace got him away from Pique, looking temporarily cumbersome, to make it 1-1.

Frustration was etched across the imperious defender’s face after the concession. He knew it used to take something genuinely remarkable to catch him out, even in the recent past.

This is not to denigrate an icon of the game. Just merely a contemporaneous example of why Barca’s succession plan has been kicked into gear.

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Barcelona 2-1 Real Sociedad: Player ratings as Ousmane Dembele gets up to speed

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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:

BARCELONA (4-3-3)

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.

SUBSTITUTES

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.

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Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde has his eyes set on the treble

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Ernesto Valverde

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.

Lionel Messi could score his 600th goal for the club

Lionel Messi could score his 600th goal 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.”

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