Lionel Messi started on the bench for Barcelona but goals from Carles Alena and Luis Suarez meant no rescue act was required at Deportivo Alaves on Tuesday night.
It wasn’t a vintage Barca display but Alena struck in the 54th minute before Suarez converted from the spot six minutes later to seal the victory as the Catalans got three points closer to winning the La Liga title.
The visitors’ second goal was initially ruled offside but a VAR review, the referee pointed to the spot for a handball by Tomas Pina.
Messi did take to the pitch just past the hour mark but the job was done by then and it proved to be little more than a run out for the Argentine superstar.
The result means Barca will be crowned champions if they win their next game at home to Levante or even before that should Valencia take points off second-placed Atletico Madrid.
Here, we rate the performances of the Barcelona players.
STARTING XI (4-3-3)
Marc-Andre ter Stegen – A couple of routine saves to make but never really broke a sweat. 6
Nelson Semedo – Good on the ball and got forward often enough but didn’t threaten with his delivery. 5
Gerard Pique – Apart from one poor challenge on Jony, he was solid at the back. Played out from the back well. 7
Samuel Umtiti – Struggled with his tackles, failing to register a successful one and fouling three times instead. 4
Sergi Roberto – Picked up the assist for the opener and produced good delivery. Much better on the right side. 7
Arturo Vidal – Good energy and added steel in midfield, winning his share of tackles. 7
Sergio Busquets – A sloppy pass early on but reverted to the composed, reliable anchorman we know him to be soon enough. 6
Carles Alena – Looked sharp and was heavily involved in Barca’s play. Took his goal well after a fine run to get into position. 8
Ousmane Dembele – A quite performance by his standards. Beat a few players but never threatened, taking no shots. 6
Luis Suarez – Far from his best again and never really looked like scoring. Was fortunate to net from the spot with the keeper getting a hand to it. 6
Philippe Coutinho – A couple of neat touches and turns but he’ll need to show more if he wants to start against former side Liverpool in the Champions League. 6
Lionel Messi (61′) – It’s amazing how he can tread onto a pitch and immediately raise the level of his side. A few good dribbles and even forced a nice save. 7
Jordi Alba (70′) – Came on for Semedo and ventured forward often. 6
Arthur (87′) – N/A
Let’s not waste wordage – Barcelona’s Lionel Messi is a man apart when ranking the globe’s deadliest forwards.
This, however, does not mean interest cannot be derived from this list.
An honourable fight to finish second contains the blooming African duo at Liverpool, in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. There are also the sizable gifts of Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar to contend with, plus a luckless figure at Borussia Dortmund who is, thankfully, fit enough for serious consideration.
Where do these attackers stack up? Take a look in our tiered rankings:
What more is there to say about the incomparable Barcelona attacker?
Well, for starters, at the age of 31 – when most footballers are in decline – Messi is better than ever. In La Liga alone, he’s carrying an average Blaugrana to a comfortable fourth title in seven campaigns courtesy of 33 goals and 13 assists in 30 run-outs.
What hangover, after the frustration and crushing disappointment of Argentina’s World Cup 2018?
Then there is the frankly insane statistic that in the past five seasons, he’s netted 20 direct free-kicks. Nearest opponent Miralem Pjanic, of Juventus, has 11.
Not bad for 2018’s fifth-best footballer, according to Ballon d’Or voting…
The grandiose title of his latest documentary, ‘The Making of a Legend’, may generate derision from traditionalists, but it is not flagrantly aggrandising.
Griezmann was named man of the match in World Cup 2018’s final, a sodden 4-2 victory against Croatia in which a nerveless first-half penalty put France on their way. Less than two months’ prior, a brace in the Europa League showpiece versus countrymen Marseille helped earn a 3-0 victory.
No wonder the 28-year-old – who twins technical acumen and a ceaseless work rate to help symbolise Diego Simeone’s ‘Cholismo’ – was courted by Barcelona and then publicly rejected them in last summer’s trite documentary, ‘The Decision’.
For an apt representation of Neymar’s unfettered ability, look past his flamboyance and market-shattering €222 million departure from Barcelona.
Ignore a substantial 32 goals and 19 assists from 34 Ligue 1 run-outs at Paris Saint-Germain.
All this has been achieved by the Brazil international, and yet there is the nagging sense of unbridled talent going unfulfilled. This is a 27-year-old phenomenon for whom tier-2 status should be an affront.
The recurring metatarsal injury that has pockmarked both seasons in the City of Light has been a hindrance. But excessive theatrics during a disappointing World Cup 2018 for Brazil reinforced the image of a coddled man-child.
Neymar can do more. But will he?
A glorious and inspirational transformation has begun.
Sterling’s rapid growth under Pep Guardiola’s aegis has made him one of Europe’s most-feared attackers. This new standing will come to the fore when Manchester City chase down silverware in the coming months, plus see England hunt the inaugural Nations League-crown.
The sight of the 24-year-old ghosting inside and tapping in on the goal-line symbolises the Blues. Individual awards should also follow.
But beyond the pitch, Sterling stands for something grander – unity.
At a time when his nation is ravaged by the rigours of Brexit, the Jamaica-born product of a single-parent home and repeat target of unedifying tabloid attack showcases the enduring value of multiculturalism.
A pivotal few months await for the Belgium magician.
His beguiling seven-year stint at Chelsea looks poised to end, the lure of Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane finally proving too strong. This £100 million switch to become the creative heartbeat of football’s grandest club would be just reward.
At 28-years old, Hazard is in his prime. The 13 assists registered in this season’s Premier League is one greater than a combined tally from the preceding three.
The Silver Ball – for the tournament’s second-best player – was gifted when Les Rouges finished third at World Cup 2018, while he is in touching distance of a career-best season’s goal return at club level.
It remains a joy to watch one of the sport’s great dribblers in full flight.
Rewind to spring 2018 and Salah was talking the game by storm.
An astounding debut campaign at Liverpool, infamously ended by a suspect collision with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos during defeat in the Champions League decider, produced both 44 goals in 52 games and a genuine global superstar. The FIFA Puskas Award for 2018’s best goal and third place in The Best FIFA Men’s Player list attest to the Egyptian’s startling step-up.
Sublime technique, punishing pace and imperious finishing were in unison.
These traits remain as Liverpool close on ending 29 years of pain in the top flight, but Salah’s personal returns have diminished – he currently boasts 23 goals from 46 fixtures in 2018/19.
The 26-year-old is one of the best, but not, quite, yet a true great.
It may sound absurd to speak of a ‘breakthrough season’ from this established performer, but the moniker fits.
The effervescent and ingenious Senegal forward’s 18 Premier League goals already represent a career-best top-flight tally. There also remain three high-pressure fixtures to fulfil as Liverpool chase down a hallowed first league crown in 29, pained, years that he would have done so much to attain.
Other highlights include being unplayable at Bayern Munich in the Champions League round of 16, plus netting for his nation at World Cup 2018.
At 26-years old, the rapier Mane represents a coming force in the world game.
Is another unfortunate tale unravelling for one of football’s most-unlucky characters?
The turbocharged Reus was raring to shatter the duopoly of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when he raced – in characteristically brisk fashion – to a combined 42 goals during 93 run-outs of his first two campaigns at Borussia Dortmund.
Agonising injuries, however, would deny the now 29-year-old a World Cup 2014 winners’ medal and berth at Euro 2016. When fit, at last, for World Cup 2018, Germany endured a shambolic title defence.
A consistently available Reus – for the first time since 2015/16 – has fuelled BVB’s ongoing title charge. Yet even this appears to have combusted on the final straight.
Supreme skills are not, in this case, aligned with good fortune.
Barcelona full-back Nelson Semedo has stood by team-mate Philippe Coutinho in these testing times for the Brazilian.
The record-signing has received stick from critics and fans alike for his poor season.
To his credit, Coutinho is showing some improvements in the last couple of weeks and even scored a screamer to nail the coffin on Manchester United in the Champions League.
However, he has still been at the receiving end of some criticism, mainly directed towards his celebration.
Semedo maintained that he backs the Brazilian and knows how hard he is working to get back to his best.
The Portuguese also expressed his thoughts on how Coutinho has already demonstrated what he can do with the ball and is still doubted by everyone.
“I am 100 percent with Coutinho,” he said after the match, according to Marca.
“I know what has been working to improve and to help the team.
“He has already demonstrated his abilities and I do not understand why people doubt his quality.”