Ousmane Dembele made his first start for Barcelona in over a month as they travelled to Huesca, but an otherwise severely depleted side could only manage a goalless draw against the La Liga struggles on Saturday.
Ahead of their second leg Champions League quarter-final tie with Manchester United, the Catalans’ lead at the top of the Spanish flight gave them the luxury to shuffle the pack as they attempt to defend a 1-0 first leg advantage against the Premier League outfit in midweek.
Dembele, who was an unused substitute at Old Trafford, could well feature in the return leg having been hooked after 68 minutes in Huesca.
DRAW FOR BARCA, DOOM FOR UNITED
Huesca would’ve been pleased with the Barcelona starting XI when the team sheets were released. Ernesto Valverde essentially fielded his ‘B’ team in which the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and even Samuel Umtiti looked out of place.
Given the 11-point advantage the Catalans held over second-placed Atletico Madrid heading into the fixture, playing a depleted team with the midweek clash against United in mind was a perfectly viable option.
Of course, they would’ve preferred to leave Huesca with another three points in the bag but in the grand scheme of things, they’ll accept the draw and move on to more pressing issues.
The draw for Barca spells doom for United. As if showing up at Camp Nou and attempting to recover from a 1-0 deficit against the Spanish giants wasn’t daunting enough, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men must now do so with their opponents rested and refreshed.
FRINGE PLAYERS FLOUNDER
For many of the XI who took the field for Barca on Saturday evening, this was a rare starting berth. Against the team rooted to the bottom of La Liga, it was also an opportunity to shine. Sadly, no one really seized the day and it passed them by without incident or excitement.
There were a couple of encouraging displays from debutants Riqui Puig and Moussa Wague, playing on either flank of a 3-5-2 formation. The Spaniard set up Dembele for the best chance of the game, sliding a through ball into his path but the Frenchman was unable to beat Roberto Santamarina in goal.
Wague on the other hand was a constant and considerable threat down the right side, generating plenty of width while boasting good pace and skill. He even played two key passes, joint-top along with Dembele. Jean-Clair Todibo also impressed in a back three, particularly with a last ditch tackle on Ezequiel Avila in the closing stages.
Meanwhile, it was another disappointing outing for January signing Kevin-Prince Boateng who was barely involved. Carles Alena would’ve been vying for inclusion against United but he was uncharacteristically sloppy in possession, losing the ball six times.
Playing in an unfamiliar central midfield role, Malcom was nowhere near as effective as he can be. It was a chance for these fringe players to prove their worth but few will have left a lasting impression.
HUESCA HOLD THEIR OWN
Yes, they were playing a significantly weakened Barcelona side but after the 8-2 thrashing they suffered at Camp Nou earlier this season, the encounter at El Alcoraz was a marked improvement.
On paper, they set up in a 4-3-3 formation but with Christian Rivera playing as a sweeper in front of the defence and sitting increasingly deeper, it was really a back five and a flat one at that.
That said, their defensive performance will have encouraged manager Francisco Rodriguez for it’s in that department that they’ve let themselves down. A tally of 35 goals this season is a respectable one and seven have come in the last three games, including two at Real Madrid.
So even though Huesca sit bottom with 25 points, they are only five away from 17th-placed Valladolid (though they have a game in hand) and more decent displays at the back could yet secure survival. With games against Rayo Vallecano, Eibar and Villarreal up next, Huesca have hope yet.
Atletico Madrid are likely to appeal the eight-match handed down to striker Diego Costa on Thursday.
Costa received a red card after a confrontation with referee Gil Manzano during Atletico’s 2-0 loss to Barcelona last weekend, during which he directed crude remarks at the referee and, according to Manzano’s match report, “grabbed” the Spanish official by the arms.
The length of the ban would see Costa miss the rest of the season, with only seven games left in La Liga and Atletico having been knocked out of the Copa del Rey.
“It’s bad news,” Atletico president Enrique Cerezo said on Thursday. “The natural thing is for us to appeal, to ask for leniency and see what happens.
“There are players who are very temperamental. Insults should never happen on the football field but there are times when they do happen.”
Costa has also received a fine of £5,100, while the Spanish football federation (RFEF) also levied a fine on the club, of £2,400.
Despite the striker’s 28th-minute sending off, Atletico managed to keep the game at 0-0 until the 85th minute, before late goals from Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi saw Barcelona win 2-0 and effectively end the title race, with the win giving La Blaugrana an 11-point lead over second-place Atletico.
The Supercopa de Espana – or the Spanish Super Cup – is set a major overhaul from next season onward, Marca reports.
The cup final which features the winner of the Copa del Rey and La Liga will now feature a total of four teams and the tournament will be played in January as opposed to August.
It is expected that La Liga’s top two and the Copa del Rey winner will be guaranteed a berth. If one of the top two win the cup, then the spot will be taken up by the cup finalist.
The fourth place will go to the semi-finalist with most titles. As things stand, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Real Madrid – by virtue of winning more trophies than Real Betis – will be the teams to qualify for the Super Cup.
Also, the tournament is expected to be played on foreign soil, with a decision on sates and venue due to be made on April 29th.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that the Copa del Rey will see single-leg ties in all rounds until the semi-finals. This will be done to remove fixture congestion in January when some of the teams will be engaged in Supercopa.