Lionel Messi made it 20 assists for the season in Barcelona’s stodgy 1-0 win over Real Valladolid on Saturday, even as his team’s La Liga challenge appears almost over.
Messi teed up Arturo Vidal’s winner at Jose Zorilla to become the first player to provide 20 assists in Spain’s top flight since Xavi Hernandez in 2009.
Victory for Barca means Real Madrid cannot clinch the title on Monday by beating Granada but only an incredible collapse will prevent them putting their name on the trophy later in the week.
If they beat Granada, Madrid will win La Liga by prevailing at home to Villarreal on Thursday, regardless of Barcelona’s results.
Overall, Madrid need only five points from their remaining three matches to secure their third La Liga title in eight years.
“We are doing things that deserve more than where we are,” said Barca coach Quique Setien.
“To win La Liga, I don’t know, because our rival is winning everything.”
Yet even as Barca’s turbulent domestic campaign draws to a close, Messi continues to shine.
His delightful pass for Vidal in the 15th minute, a scoop between two Valladolid defenders, triggered more remarkable milestones.
As well as matching the best La Liga total for assists by one player in the last 11 years, Messi extends his own career-best number of assists in a single league season.
– ‘Not rocket science’ -He also becomes only the second player in the 21st century from the five major European leagues to hit 20 goals and 20 assists in the same campaign, after Thierry Henry in 2002-03.
Messi has halted negotiations to extend his current contract, which expires in 2021, perhaps to express frustration with the running of the club.
As Barcelona’s title challenge has wilted, Setien’s position has come under scrutiny too, despite him only taking over in January.
But he was bold against Valladolid, deploying a 3-5-2 formation, with Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba as wing-backs and the versatile Sergi Roberto dropping into the back three.
Luis Suarez started on the bench but replaced Antoine Griezmann at half-time, the Frenchman enduring one of his quieter displays before having to go off injured.
“He came off because he had a problem,” Setien said. “It was him who asked for the change.”
After playing Messi behind Suarez and Griezmann against Villarreal on Sunday, Setien appears to be experimenting, perhaps with an eye on the Champions League’s resumption next month.
Or he may be making the best of a stretched squad that appears to be feeling the effects of fatigue. Setien only named five outfield players on the bench.
“We’ve had a lot of games, a lot of wear and a lot of players playing a lot of minutes. It’s not rocket science,” he said.
“When you’re tired, you lose more balls, make bad decisions. It’s normal.”
The system worked well in the first half but Barca’s problem of converting possession into chances remained and Valladolid grew in confidence late on.
Defeat leaves Valladolid 14th but survival looks all-but secured, with seven points between them and the bottom three.
Griezmann snatched at an early finish inside the box before Vidal showed him how it was done.
Messi recovered the ball on the edge of the area and after receiving it back from Semedo, scooped it through to Vidal, who gathered and unleashed all in one movement to find the far corner.
Valladolid’s Kike Perez raced clear of Gerard Pique but lost his footing at the crucial moment before Messi weaved through but drove wide.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen had to make two saves in the second half as Valladolid pushed, the first from an Enes Unal header and the second in injury-time, after Sandro Ramirez was allowed space at the back post.
Earlier, Celta Vigo surrendered a valuable point in the relegation battle by conceding in the 91st-minute to Osasuna, Jose Arnaiz sealing a 2-1 win.
Defeat means Celta stay four points clear of the bottom three but having played a game more than those below them.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich will meet in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League should both sides make it through, Friday’s draw for the final eight confirmed.
Both teams still need to complete their last-16 ties, with Bayern almost there having won 3-0 away to Chelsea in the first leg, while Barcelona are due to host Napoli after a 1-1 draw in Italy.
Meanwhile, if Manchester City can finish the job in their last-16 tie against Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola’s team will go on to a quarter-final against either Juventus or Lyon.
City won 2-1 in Madrid in the first leg in March, while Juventus must overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg of their last-16 tie against Lyon.
Postponed in March as the pandemic took over, all remaining last 16 second legs are due to be played on August 7 and 8.
The winners will advance to the Final Eight, which will be held as a unique straight knockout tournament in Lisbon due to the difficulties caused by the coronavirus.
The draw threw up the possibility of a Clasico semi-final, with Barcelona and Madrid on collision course to meet in the last four should both make it that far.
The other side of the draw is clearer. First-time quarter-finalists RB Leipzig of Germany will meet Atletico Madrid, runners-up to city rivals Real the last time the Champions League final was played in Lisbon in 2014. Atletico knocked out holders Liverpool in the last 16.
The winners of the Leipzig v Atletico quarter-final will face either Paris Saint-Germain or Atalanta in the last four.
The quarter-finals will be played between August 12 and 15 in the Portuguese capital, with matches shared between Benfica’s Estadio da Luz and Sporting’s Estadio Jose Alvalade.
The semi-finals are scheduled for August 18 and 19, with the final on August 23 at the Estadio da Luz.
All games are set to be played without spectators after UEFA confirmed on Thursday that “matches should take place behind closed doors until further notice” because of the uncertain health situation around Europe.
The situation in Lisbon itself is particularly concerning, with lockdown restrictions reimposed last week on 19 neighbourhoods across the northern periphery of the city as virus cases increase at a worrying rate.
Barcelona kept their faint title hopes alive and doomed Espanyol to relegation on Wednesday as Luis Suarez’s goal proved the winner in a pivotal Catalan derby at the top and bottom of La Liga.
A cagey contest at Camp Nou exploded into life for six frantic minutes at the start of the second half as Ansu Fati and Pol Lozano were sent off, leaving each side with 10 men before Suarez struck.
Suarez profitted after another superb contribution from a reinvigorated Antoine Griezmann, his backheel setting up Lionel Messi to shoot, with Suarez turning in the rebound.
This 1-0 victory was a far cry from the sparkling 4-1 win over Villarreal on Sunday but it moves Barca to within a point of Real Madrid, who play their game in hand at home to Alaves on Friday.
Espanyol, rooted to the bottom of the table, will be relegated. They sit 11 points adrift of safety with only three games left to play.
“Life or death” read the front page of Mundo Deportivo on Thursday morning – for Barcelona, who had to win to stay in touch with Madrid, and for Espanyol, given they needed a victory to prolong their survival effort.
Griezmann’s combination with Suarez and Messi, coming after his sumptuous chip against Villarreal, sustains the Frenchman’s momentum but this was more of a gritty win against an Espanyol team that hit the post at 0-0 and had chances.
With the superior head-to-head and a kind last four fixtures, Real Madrid remain firm favourites.
“We have to win our next three games,” said Suarez. “What Madrid do is up to them. If they drop points, fantastic. We just have to be there if they do.”
Espanyol needed to win but have not beaten Barcelona in the league since 2009 when Mauricio Pochettino was in charge and Rufete, the team’s fourth coach this season, accepted Messi’s commiserations at the final whistle with a look of resignation.
The club’s supporters this week expressed anger after a “shameful season” under the Chinese Rastar Group, which took majority control in 2016.
– ‘Ask forgiveness’ -Only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have spent more seasons in the top flight than Espanyol, who after 26 consecutive campaigns there must now rebuild.
“We ask forgiveness from our fans,” said Javi Lopez.
“We know these are tough moments for us but for our fans as well. This season nothing has gone right. It’s our fault and we are committed to coming back stronger.”
Barcelona had a lot of the ball in the first half but did little with it and in fact Espanyol had the better chances on the counter-attack.
Adri Embarba sped away down the right after honing on goal his finish had to be blocked by the outstretched right leg of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Ter Stegen was called upon again before half-time and this time Didac Vila raced clear down the left, his shot rebounding off the goalkeeper and Clement Lenglet before falling back to Vila, who hit the far post.
Quique Setien acted at the break, bringing Fati on and shifting Sergi Roberto to right-back but the 17-year-old lasted only five minutes, a high challenge on Fernando Calero earning in him a straight red card on review.
But any advantage Espanyol had was short-lived because Lozano then flew in high on Gerard Pique, with his studs up, and was also sent off to make it 10 against 10.
With the numbers equal but the spaces bigger, Barcelona could attack with greater freedom and they took the lead three minutes later.
A delightful Griezmann backheel teed up Messi to shoot and the ball spilled out for Suarez to tap in.
Messi almost added a second with a thumping volley at the back post while Espanyol wanted a penalty in injury-time when a shot hit the shoulder of Arturo Vidal. The appeals were rightly waved away.
Villarreal had earlier beaten Getafe 3-1 to reduce the gap behind Sevilla in fourth to three points.
Santi Cazorla scored two penalties for Villarreal to all-but end Getafe’s own hopes of Champions League qualification. Sevilla play away at Athletic Bilbao on Thursday.
Forever condemned to live in the shadow of Barcelona, Espanyol’s worst nightmare will come true on Wednesday if they are doomed to relegation from La Liga by their city neighbours.
It is a likely scenario. With four games remaining, Chinese-owned Espanyol are rock bottom, 11 points from safety. Even a win at the Camp Nou would therefore only delay the inevitable.
Los Periquitos (The Budgerigars) have not beaten Barcelona in La Liga since 2009, when Mauricio Pochettino was coach.
Wednesday therefore looks set to be the day of reckoning for a club who are one of the proudest names in Spanish football.
It is too much to bear for fans, with the Federation of Espanyol Supporters’ Clubs this week issuing a statement to express their dismay at what has happened under the current ownership.
China’s Rastar Group, which specialises in model cars, paid 60 million euros ($67.7m) for 54 per cent of the club’s shares in January 2016. They now own almost 100 per cent.
“We have been deeply angered by this shameful season, the worst in our history,” said the federation, which has called on president Chen Yansheng to hand over the reins to someone based locally.
“We want to express our indignation, our sadness, our disappointment, anger and feeling of helplessness at witnessing this pathetic relegation.”
Espanyol have spent the season chopping and changing coaches, with David Gallego, Pablo Machin and Abelardo Fernandez all being sacked before sporting director Francisco Rufete was put in charge last month. He has been unable to halt the slide.
“The whole team are fed up with the situation, but they can’t give up. We have to keep fighting until the end,” Rufete said after a 1-0 defeat by Leganes at the weekend. “We have to go to the Camp Nou and play for pride.”
– Sorry season –
Espanyol’s sorry season has been all the harder to take as it came off the back of a fine 2018-19 campaign under Rubi.
He led them to seventh place and Europa League qualification, only to depart for Real Betis, taking top scorer Borja Iglesias with him. Spanish international defender Mario Hermoso left for Atletico Madrid and those departures were not adequately replaced.
“I can’t understand how 80 million euros has been spent on transfers, and with the eighth-biggest budget in the league, the club has had the worst season in its history,” fumed former president Joan Collet.
They did make it to the Europa League knockout rounds, but lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
There has been little else to cheer. Signed amid much excitement last year, Chinese striker Wu Lei has contributed just four league goals this season, including a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona in January.
– Proud history –
That would not be enough this time for a club who have won the Copa del Rey four times and twice reached the UEFA Cup final, most recently in 2007 when Ernesto Valverde’s team lost on penalties to Sevilla in Glasgow.
Only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have spent more seasons in the top division than Espanyol — founded in 1900 and named not as a counter to the Catalanism of Barca, as is sometimes assumed, but as a reaction to a Barcelona team whose players were mostly foreigners.
Espanyol’s blue and white has graced the elite in 26 consecutive campaigns, playing in three different stadiums in that time.
They left their old home in Sarria in 1997 and spent a dozen years at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium before moving into a 40,000-seat home near the city’s airport in 2009.
That same year, club captain Dani Jarque died of a heart attack aged 26, and it was left to Pochettino to guide the team through the aftermath of that tragedy.
For all his efforts, Espanyol struggled to fill their new ground and continue to do so, despite trying to promote their own underdog identity.
Unlike their neighbours they have kept their distance from the Catalan independence movement, but Espanyol has a squad with a strong local core. That may not help them on Wednesday against Lionel Messi and co.
Barcelona on Sunday brushed aside Villareal 1-4 in a Spanish La Liga match to keep their title hopes alive.
Antoine Griezmann answered his critics in style on Sunday by scoring with a sensational chip as Barcelona.
After the humiliation of being brought on in the 90th minute against his former club Atletico Madrid, Griezmann was back in the starting line-up at La Ceramica and repaid the faith with a stunning goal, teed up by Lionel Messi.
Messi also laid on a curling Luis Suarez shot into the top corner after Gerard Moreno cancelled out a Pau Torres own-goal that had put Barca in front. Ansu Fati then added a fourth late on.
An impressive victory for Quique Setien’s side reduces the gap back to four points behind Real Madrid, who earlier ground out another 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao at San Mames, with a Sergio Ramos penalty proving the difference.
Madrid’s resilient performance, and their third 1-0 victory in a row, offered a stark contrast to a goal-fest from Barcelona that was certainly easier on the eye but instructive on the title race too.
An end-to-end contest, full of chances for both sides, showed Messi, Suarez and Griezmann at their free-flowing best yet the defence was opened up with ease by Villarreal, who might have scored more.
Madrid’s discipline and organisation has made them firm favourites with four games remaining.
Griezmann had experienced his lowest moment since joining Barcelona on Tuesday in the draw against Atletico but this was the perfect response.
He celebrated his goal by sharing a warm embrace with Messi.
Villarreal looked a difficult opponent after winning five games out of six since the restart, a run that has put in touching distance of the top four.
This defeat leaves them three points behind Sevilla, who play Eibar on Monday.
The first half was perhaps the most entertaining in La Liga since the restart, with four goals and chances for two or three more.
Barca were ahead within three minutes, Torres diverting Jordi Alba’s cross into his own net under pressure from Griezmann at the near post.
– Ramos on the spot –
But Villarreal were level 11 minutes later as a superb pass from Samuel Chukwueze sent Paco Alcacer scampering in down the right and he did brilliantly to switch to Santi Cazorla on the opposite side.
Cazorla’s drive was parried but only to Moreno, who finished.
Messi laid on two sumptuous assists before half-time but the finishes were even better.
After chesting the ball down in the centre circle, Messi touched and turned, leaving his marker for dead.
He drove through two Villarreal defenders before pushing the ball left to Suarez, who arrived from the angle on the edge of the box and curled first time into the far corner.
If that was power, Griezmann’s was finesse, Messi and Suarez combining before Messi dragged back to the Frenchman, who caressed a delightful chip over Sergio Asenjo and in.
Messi thought he had his goal in the second half but Arturo Vidal was offside.
Suarez was taken off, presumably rested, and Fati added a fourth off the bench. The teenager cut in from the left and pulled his shot back inside the near post.
After edging out Getafe on Thursday, through a Ramos spot-kick, Madrid repeated the trick at San Mames, their captain’s nerve from the spot combining with a gutsy display for a pivotal win.
Ramos was perhaps fortunate not to concede a penalty himself late on when, off the ball, he seemed to slip and tread on the foot of Raul Garcia, but Madrid escaped.
Instead, the defender’s 10th goal of the season, the best tally of his career, proved decisive.
“It’s a massive win,” said Ramos. “We knew today was going to be one of the biggest games that we have left. It’s always a difficult game away at Bilbao and we saw it like that. We’re happy with another crucial three points that put more pressure on Barcelona.”
Barcelona may be about to lose the league but losing Lionel Messi would be much harder to stomach.
Messi’s contract is due to expire next year and the Argentinian has reportedly stopped talks due to frustrations with the direction of the club.
“Messi is planning to leave Barca,” Spanish radio Cadena Ser said on Thursday.
“Right now, Messi’s idea is to finish his contract in 2021 and leave Barcelona. Messi has stalled on the extension of his contract. Negotiations had started very well, with a good understanding between the two parties, but recent events have made Messi reconsider everything.”
Asked about suggestions Messi plans to leave Barcelona, coach Quique Setien said on Saturday: “I won’t speculate about this because I haven’t heard from him so I’m not aware of him saying anything.
“I see him well, everything else is speculation that I won’t get involved in. We speak about what we have to speak about and nothing else.”
Barcelona play away at in-form Villarreal on Sunday evening. Real Madrid could by then have extended their lead at the top of the table. They face Athletic Bilbao a few hours earlier.
Real manager Zinedine Zidane was asked about Messi’s potential departure on Thursday.
“I don’t know what will happen but we hope not because he is in this league and we want the best in this league,” said Zidane.
Messi said in February he did not believe Barcelona could win the Champions League on current form.
The 33-year-old has also had regular disagreements with the club’s board, headed by president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
Messi reacted publicly when sporting director Eric Abidal appeared to blame the players for the sacking of Ernesto Valverde in January.
He also led the fightback from the players over the dispute with the board in March regarding pay cuts during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We cannot help but be surprised that from within the club there are those trying to put us under the microscope or apply pressure for us to do something that we have always been clear that we would do,” said Messi.
Barcelona’s presidential elections are due to be held in 2021, when Bartomeu will have to step aside.
Among those set to run is Victor Font, who wants to appoint Messi’s former team-mate Xavi Hernandez as coach.
Yet Barca’s form, as well as suggestions of unrest in the dressing room, have placed scrutiny on Setien’s job in the short-term.
He has a contract until 2022, with a break clause in 2021, but it remains to be seen if he is in charge for next season, or even the Champions League in August.
“I have experienced it other times,” said Setien, when asked about the uncertainty. “It is not something I can control. This the circus that we are in and we accept it. “I don’t exhaust myself by reading or listening to the noise around me.”
Xavi replacing Setien would reinvigorate Messi, and perhaps the team, but the Spaniard is unlikely to take charge while Bartomeu is still in place. That means Xavi would have to wait at least another year.
Messi’s reluctance to continue contract negotiations could be a political ploy aimed at undermining the current board further. But at 33, he also does not have time to waste.
Unless Barcelona unexpectedly go all the way next month, it will be five years since the world’s best player has won the Champions League. Both Messi and Europe’s elite clubs will be aware he deserves better.
Barcelona’s title hopes suffered a hammer blow on Saturday as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Celta Vigo, handing Real Madrid the chance to move two points clear at the top of La Liga.
Luis Suarez twice put Barca in front at Balaidos with his first goals since January but Iago Aspas bent in a late free-kick to earn Celta a draw, in what could prove a pivotal moment in the title race.
Barcelona edge a point ahead of Madrid but Zinedine Zidane’s side will hope to take a big step towards becoming champions by winning away at bottom club Espanyol on Sunday.
Madrid own the superior head-to-head against Barca and have won four out of four since La Liga restarted earlier this month. With a kinder run-in than the Catalans, who play Atletico Madrid next on Tuesday, the trophy appears to be Madrid’s to lose.
“The feeling is a negative one,” said Suarez afterwards. “If we want to stay in the title race and have it in our hands we have to win all our games. But we now have to rely on Madrid to drop points.”
Suarez played his best game since undergoing knee surgery in January, his first goal coming from a surprise free-kick from Lionel Messi, who crossed when everyone expected him to shoot.
Yet Barcelona’s defensive frailties hurt them again and Celta should even have won it in injury-time, only for Nolito to miss a golden chance at the back post.
Celta climb to 16th, eight points clear of the bottom three.
Quique Setien answered calls to start 20-year-old Riqui Puig and 17-year-old Ansu Fati, and the duo impressed, injecting energy and speed into Barca’s attack.
Antoine Griezmann was left on the bench and when he came on, he was on the side of the wall that Aspas breached with his free-kick to find the bottom corner.
Messi was at the heart of everything going forward and it was his early corner that Gerard Pique headed against the crossbar.
With a free-kick on the edge of the area in the 20th minue and a 700th career goal in sight, Messi sized up the sprawl of Celta defenders in front of him.
But with everone expecting a shot, Messi clipped a cross towards the post, where Suarez headed in.
Messi even tried to score from a corner but Celta had chances too on the break. A poor clearance from Marc-Andre ter Stegen went unpunished by Fedor Smolov, who then overhit his pass when Aspas was clear. Brais Mendez slid through and hit the post.
The warnings went unheeded and when Arturo Vidal played a careless pass early in the second half, Celta capitalised.
Aspas sent Okay Yokuslu sprinting in behind and he squared for Smolov to tap in.
Celta look invigorated but Barca landed a sucker-punch. Denis Suarez lost possession under pressure from Fati, Messi played into Luis Suarez, who backed in, turned and drove into the far corner.
It looked like they had weathered the storm but Celta hit back again, Aspas curling around the side of the wall and into the corner with two minutes left.
They should even have won it in injury-time as Denis Suarez teed up Nolito at the back post but a scuffed finish let Ter Stegen save on the line.
Barcelona limped to a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Tuesday that sends them back to the top of La Liga, for 24 hours at least, three points ahead of Real Madrid.
Only a goal from substitute Ivan Rakitic in the 71st minute prevented Barca from another stalemate after a draw at Sevilla on Friday had allowed Real to go top on head-to-head.
Madrid will return to the summit if they beat struggling Real Mallorca on Wednesday but Barcelona’s victory at least puts the pressure back on Zinedine Zidane’s side, whose upward momentum is yet to be reflected by the table.