Mallorca Dethrone Real Madrid As La Liga Leaders

Real Madrid’s Spanish defender Sergio Ramos gestures during the Spanish league football match RCD Mallorca against Real Madrid CF at the Iberostar estadi stadium in Palma de Mallorca on October 19, 2019. JAIME REINA / AFP

 

Real Mallorca handed Real Madrid their first league defeat of the season on Saturday, to leave Barcelona who beat Eibar 3-0 earlier on top of La Liga.

Junior Lago scored what will be the only goal of the game just seven minutes in with the much-criticised Thibaut Courtois failing to stop the first shot sent his way.

Newly-promoted Real Mallorca held on after that, putting on a disciplined defensive display to the delight of their fans at the Estadi de Son Moix in Palma.

The victory lifted them out of the relegation zone and marks a step back for Zinedine Zidane whose men have failed to convince in the league and face a battle to avert disaster in the Champions League after failing to win their first two group clashes.

Real Madrid had come into the game deprived by injury of several first-team members. Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Dani Carvajal, and Raphael Varane were unavailable and Eden Hazard was left out after his wife gave birth.

In their absence, Zidane fielded an attack-minded team with Isco and James Rodriguez getting the nod in midfield, while Vinicius Junior and Luka Jovic joined Karim Benzema upfront.

Eder Militao partnered Captain Sergio Ramos at centre-back, while Alvaro Odriozola replaced Carvajal at right-back.

Fans would have expected Real to easily pick up all three points, Lago Junior’s beautiful early strike put Mallorca on course for victory.

Odriozola, in particular, had a poor game being partly at fault for the first goal and picking up a second yellow card late in the second half to leave a Real Madrid side already short of ideas with a mountain to climb.

Not only did they fail to accomplish the task, but they were also fortunate not to concede a second goal as they left themselves exposed on occasions as they pushed for an equaliser.

Messi, Suarez, Griezmann All On Target As Barca Move Top Of La Liga

Barcelona’s Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez (L) celebrates after scoring during their match against SD Eibar at the Ipurua stadium in Eibar on October 19, 2019. STRINGER / AFP

 

Barcelona’s ‘MSG’ strike force is finally clicked into gear as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann all scored in a ruthless 3-0 victory over Eibar on Saturday.

Griezmann’s place in the newly-formed attacking trident has not been secure but the Frenchman opened the scoring at Ipurua before teeing up Messi and then playing the crucial pass for Suarez to make it three.

“There will be good and bad days but we are getting to know each other and bit by bit we will do even better,” said Griezmann.

An authoritative Barca display thrust them to the top of La Liga, for a few hours at least before Real Madrid play Real Mallorca. They moved three points clear of Atletico, who drew 1-1 at home to Valencia.

The victory also dismissed suggestions their players might be affected by Friday’s postponement of next Saturday’s Clasico due to protests in Catalonia.

Violence in Barcelona and disruptions at El Prat airport meant Ernesto Valverde’s side altered their pre-match routine and embarked on a 589-kilometre bus trip to the Basque County on Friday.

All the while, discussions continued over the Clasico against Real Madrid, which is now expected to go ahead in December.

“It is fashionable not to agree on political issues but at least let’s agree on the date of the Clasico,” Valverde said afterwards. “It doesn’t seem to me that difficult.”

Perhaps chaos off the pitch inspired Barca to unite on it.

This was their fifth consecutive victory in all competitions, a sequence which is swiftly erasing memories of a stumbling start to the season.

The resurgence has coincided with Messi’s return from injury yet it was the fluidity and cohesion of the front three, rather than the Argentinian’s familiar solo brilliance, that will have been most pleasing for Valverde.

“Great players always understand each other,” Valverde said. “With time and matches they will understand each other even more.”

Four for Griezmann

Griezmann has four goals since joining Barca from Atletico Madrid last summer but a series of underwhelming showings led to Ousmane Dembele starting against Sevilla before the international break.

There was good news too for Barcelona in defence, where Samuel Umtiti came through 90 minutes in what was his first appearance of the season. Umtiti, who has been out with a foot injury, replaced the banned Gerard Pique.

The only blot on the result was an injury to Sergi Roberto, who hurt his left knee and was replaced at half-time. He will be a doubt for the Champions League game away at Slavia Prague on Wednesday.

The visiting fans chanted in support of the nine Catalan leaders imprisoned last week for a failed independence bid in 2017.

Griezmann’s finish clipped the inside of the post and found the net after 13 minutes.

Messi should have made it two before half-time but was denied one-on-one by goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic. Suarez’s effort was ruled out for offside.

Barca made it two just before the hour as Frenkie de Jong’s incisive ball was collected by Suarez. As he lost control, Griezmann took over, flicking left to Messi, who made no mistake.

The third involved all three again. Griezmann’s superb reverse pass set Messi clear and he generously slipped the ball left for Suarez who was left with an open goal.

Atletico lost ground as they were undone by a late Dani Parejo free-kick against Valencia at the Wanda Metropolitano, where both sides finished the game with 10 men.

Diego Costa scored a first-half penalty and in a frantic final 10 minutes, Joao Felix limped off with all three of Diego Simeone’s substitutes already used.

Parejo struck in the 82nd minute and Valencia’s Lee Kang-In was sent off in injury-time.

Atletico confirmed Felix suffered a “bad twist” in his right ankle. His fitness will be a concern for Simeone ahead of Atletico’s Champions League game at home to Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday.

“At first it didn’t look like much but the doctors think it could be serious,” said Simeone.

AFP

Hazard Scores First Goal For Real In Granada Win

Real Madrid’s Belgian forward Eden Hazard (L) celebrates with ramos scoring his team’s second goal during the Spanish league football match between Real Madrid CF and Granada FC at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on October 5, 2019. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

 

Eden Hazard ended the wait for his first Real Madrid goal but his team had to resist a spirited second-half comeback from Granada to seal a thrilling 4-2 victory in La Liga on Saturday. 

Karim Benzema put Real ahead in the second minute at the Santiago Bernabeu before Hazard opened his account with a delightful lifted finish towards the end of the first half.

Luka Modric’s bending long-range effort on the hour looked to have confirmed the win but Granada scored twice in quick succession through Darwin Machis and Domingos Duarte, the first from the penalty spot, to set up a tense last 12 minutes.

James Rodriguez, on as a substitute, ended the rally by scoring his first goal since May 2017 in injury-time to wrap up an unexpectedly dramatic contest between the league’s top two.

Granada stay second, for now, after suffering only their second defeat of the season.

Madrid had been in complete control, their fluency and tempo contributing to arguably the best hour of football they have played this season.

Yet a hectic 20-minute period in the second half took some of the gloss off a performance that at least gets Zinedine Zidane’s side back to winning ways following their 2-2 draw at home to Club Brugge in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Hazard had become a growing concern after five underwhelming matches, the patience granted to him after his injury in pre-season beginning to run out after his 100 million euros ($109 million) move from Chelsea.

The Belgian still looks some way short of his best but his goal here was timely, not just for him but also Real, who will go into international break top of the table, despite their own bumpy start to the season.

Kroos injured, Bale back 

Toni Kroos walked off injured in the first half to be replaced by Modric, which will be a worry for Germany, who play Argentina in a friendly on Wednesday.

Gareth Bale returned after being rested against Brugge while Alphonse Areola came in for the ill Thibaut Courtois in goal. Areola’s mistake gave away the penalty, and perhaps any hopes he had of keeping Courtois out longer-term.

Madrid conceded after 122 seconds on Tuesday but needed only 102 to take the lead here. Playing on the right, Bale often makes use of the outside of his left foot and the bend he created to bypass two Granada defenders and find Benzema at the backpost was superb. Benzema could not miss.

Madrid created several early chances. A slick move down the left between Bale, Benzema and Dani Carvajal saw the latter go clear while Benzema and the impressive Fede Valverde both went close too.

Bale was first to congratulate Hazard when he scored shortly before half-time but Valverde created it, driving past two Granada midfielders before intercepting Duarte’s header and poking the ball through. Hazard finished just in time, lifting it coolly into the net.

The second half grew increasingly bad-tempered, broken up by late tackles and complaints to the referee. Yet when Modric collected Hazard’s pass on the hour, after another Valverde chase, and found the top corner, the game looked finished.

Instead, Granada were given a lifeline. Areola had just failed to claim a cross when moments later he dallied in his box and caught Carlos Fernandez in a rushed attempt to clear.

Darwin Machis scored the penalty and with 12 minutes left, they made it 3-2, Victor Diaz heading to the back post where Duarte prodded in.

Madrid were suddenly alive to the unexpected threat and Benzema should have made it four in the 86th minute but his shot was saved. James did, a quick break ending with Alvaro Odriozola finding him with the pull-back. The relief was palpbale.

AFP

Costa, Felix On Target As Atletico Beat Mallorca

Club Atletico de Madrid players congratulate Atletico Madrid’s Portuguese forward Joao Felix for his goal during the Spanish league football match between RCD Mallorca and Club Atletico de Madrid at the Iberostar estadi stadium in Palma de Mallorca on September 25, 2019.
JAIME REINA / AFP

 

Diego Costa’s partnership with Joao Felix is finally up and running after both scored in Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 victory over Real Mallorca on Wednesday.

Costa headed in on 26 minutes at the Iberostar Stadium and Felix struck again after half-time to set Atletico on their way before Alvaro Morata was sent off just eight minutes after being brought on as a substitute.

Morata’s punishment will be to miss Atletico’s city derby on Saturday against Real Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, which could be a contest of first against second in La Liga.

Atletico sit top of the table on 13 points but Real could overtake them by beating Osasuna later on Wednesday.

Athletic Bilbao are one point behind in second place after preserving their unbeaten start to the season with a 1-1 draw at Leganes.

Diego Simeone’s Atletico appear at least to have put behind them a sticky patch that included two draws and a defeat in three games, even if one of those draws was their thrilling comeback against Juventus in the Champions League.

But familiar concerns had returned about Atletico’s threat in attack, with Costa failing to score in any of their opening six matches while offering limited service to the 19-year-old Felix, who has shown glimpses of his undeniable talent but is also still adjusting after his summer move from Benfica.

Goals for both will have been welcome even against a Mallorca side that now sit 17th, having conceded the joint most goals in the division so far.

Given Morata’s red card, Costa and Felix are also almost certain to join forces again for the visit of Madrid this weekend.

Costa’s goal was simple, as Mallorca failed to clear Koke’s cross from the right and the striker nipped in to head past goalkeeper Manolo Reina.

Felix’s was more complex but owed something to fortune too. The Portuguese did brilliantly to bring a looping ball down in the area but his finish on the turn took a cruel deflection before spinning up and into the far corner.

The only blot on Atletico’s night came from Morata, who was booked twice in two minutes of madness after an argument with Mallorca’s Xisco Campos. Morata had come on in the 69th minute and was walking towards the tunnel in the 77th.

AFP

Jordan Fires Sevilla To Top Of La Liga

Sevilla’s Spanish midfielder Joan Jordan (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the Spanish league football match Deportivo Alaves against Sevilla FC at the Mendizorrotza stadium in Vitoria on September 15, 2019. ANDER GILLENEA / AFP

 

Sevilla moved to the top of the early La Liga table on Sunday as Joan Jordan’s brilliant free-kick helped them seal a 1-0 win at Alaves.

Julen Lopetegui’s side continued their excellent start to the campaign, remaining unbeaten and moving a point clear of Atletico Madrid, who lost 2-0 at Real Sociedad on Saturday, at the summit.

It was a first defeat of the season for Alaves, who slipped to 11th in the standings.

Lopetegui, who joined Sevilla for his first job since being sacked in quick succession by both Spain and Real Madrid, saw one of his close-season signings produce the game’s defining moment.

Midfielder Jordan, who arrived at Sevilla from Eibar for a reported 14 million euros ($15.62 million), curled home a wonderful free-kick in the 37th minute which flew into the top corner to give him his second goal of the season.

The visitors comfortably saw out the match to claim their third league win this term, as Alaves failed to muster a shot on target.

Sevilla host Real Madrid next Sunday in a meeting of two sides yet to taste defeat.

Real claimed a 3-2 win over Levante at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, when reigning champions Barcelona eased to a 5-2 victory against Valencia, with 16-year-old Ansu Fati scoring inside two minutes.

Griezmann Nets Brace As Barca Put Five Past Betis

 

Antoine Griezmann proved Barcelona can win without Lionel Messi and do without Neymar too after he scored twice in a 5-2 demolition of Real Betis on Sunday.

Griezmann tossed confetti into the air as he celebrated his second at Camp Nou, where he was the star performer, if only for a night in the absence of Messi, who is still short of fitness.

A brilliant Barcelona performance delivered a resounding response to the doubts from their defeat to Athletic Bilbao last weekend, among them a reliance on Messi, the need for Neymar and the future of Ernesto Valverde as coach.

But as Carles Perez, Jordi Alba and Arturo Vidal made it three, four and five, the gloom was forgotten, along with Nabil Fekir’s opener in the 15th minute, that had Betis level at half-time.

Loren Moron slammed a stunning strike into the top corner for Betis late on but by then the game was up as Barca ensured no more ground was lost on Atletico Madrid, who beat Leganes 1-0 earlier on Sunday, or Real Madrid, who were held to a 1-1 draw on Saturday by Real Valladolid.

Barcelona will hope to have Messi back for the trip to Osasuna next weekend but with Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele both out for longer, Griezmann’s statement display was timely.

This was his first goal at Camp Nou in 14 appearances, five of them for Real Sociedad and eight for Atletico, and his overall performance was of someone ready to lead, rather than serve merely as a foil for Messi.

Suarez and Messi were in the crowd, who enjoyed a goal from the 21-year-old Perez, making his first start, and a substitute appearance from Anssumane Fati, who at 16 became the second youngest player ever to play for Barcelona in La Liga.

Sergio Busquets was at fault for Betis’ opener as he gave the ball away, allowing Fekir to drive into the corner.

But Barca looked dangerous and were undeterred, even if Gerard Pique, on his 500th appearance for the club, was lucky to escape only with a yellow card when he fouled Loren as the last man.

Rafinha missed an excellent chance to equalise before Griezmann took over, volleying in on the stretch four minutes before half-time, past the weak hand of Dani Martin.

If Griezmann’s first owed something to the goalkeeper, his second was unstoppable. He collected the ball 25 yards out and used Sidnei as a marker to bend his shot around and into the far corner.

Griezmann ran to the corner where confetti was poured into his hands. He tossed it into the air above his head.

Barca were relentless as Perez drove into the bottom corner and Alba made it four, latching onto a superb Busquets pass inside the full-back.

There was still time for two scintillating strikes, the first from Vidal, who was slid in by Griezmann, and the second by Loren, who was given too much space. It was no more than a consolation.

Barcelona stay behind Atletico, who maintained their perfect start with another 1-0 victory, this time over Leganes as Vitolo came off the bench to score a second-half winner at Butarque.

After beating Getafe last weekend by the same scoreline, Atletico have begun the season in familiar fashion, with efficiency trumping invention despite an ambitious set of summer signings.

Joao Felix, Atletico’s 126 million-euro ($140 million) buy from Benfica and much-hailed replacement for Griezmann, was quiet again but again delivered the match’s most memorable moment.

The 19-year-old’s perfectly-timed pass provided the assist for Vitolo while Felix had been picked out by Kieran Trippier, who was faultless on his second Atletico start.

Bale Starts As Madrid Beat Celta 3-1

Real Madrid’s French forward Karim Benzema (C) celebrates with teammates including Gareth Bale, Marcelo, and Luka Modric after scoring the opening goal in their clash against Celta Vigo in Vigo on August 17, 2019. MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP

 

Zinedine Zidane promised changes but it was a retro Real Madrid that gave the revolution a winning start on Saturday as Gareth Bale led the way in a 3-1 victory over Celta Vigo.

Bale was back in the team and back in form at Balaidos, with Zidane’s eagerness to move him out this summer still perhaps in his mind as he teed up Karim Benzema’s opening goal.

Celta saw a potential equaliser chalked off before half-time. Then Real’s Luka Modric was sent off 11 minutes inti the second half but a stunning 30-yard shot from Toni Kroos put Madrid firmly back in control.

By the time Lucas Vazquez added a delicious third, at the end of a silky passing move, it was possible to wonder where this Madrid have been for the last 12 months, particularly as this starting line-up included not a single summer signing.

Zidane wanted Paul Pogba but it was Casemiro, Modric and Kroos in midfield, the same trio he picked for the Champions League final in 2018.

The coach also started Marcelo, arguably Madrid’s worst performer last term, and Bale. Only last month Zidane had said it would be “best for everyone” if the Welshman were sold.

Eden Hazard, who injured his thigh in training on Friday, will certainly start when he is fit again and there will be much tougher opponents than Celta, who finished 17th last season and were dead and buried before Iker Losada delivered a late consolation.

But, after a poor pre-season, Zidane needed a positive opening. This one was made all the sweeter by Barcelona’s defeat by Athletic Bilbao on Friday night.

Celta spent much of the match feeling aggrieved, no more so than after Benzema scored after just 12 minutes.

The home team claimed a foul by Casemiro in the build up. After that, Bale still had a lot to do, his dart one way and then the other freeing space for a drive towards the near post, where Benzema reacted fastest.

Early on, Bale was everywhere, blocking a cross in his own penalty area before being unleashed on the break, his rasping shot pushed away by Ruben Blanco.

Celta also had their moments. Gabriel Fernandez’s lunge was just short at the back post. Brais Mendez tapped in after the impressive Denis Suarez robbed Alvaro Odriozola and Iago Aspas made the final pass.

Aspas, however, had strayed offside as VAR spared Odriozola’s blushes. The referee, Javier Estrada, departed to a chorus of whistles at half-time.

Benzema and Aspas both spurned chances soon after the restart before Modric was sent off for an innocuous late challenge on the heel of Suarez. Estrada consulted the review and was left in no doubt.

Nestor Aruajo headed the ball straight at Thibaut Courtois but just as Madrid seemed about to give way, Kroos produced his thunderbolt from 30 yards, the ball cannoning down off the crossbar and in.

That knocked the stuffing out of Celta. They went three down when a brilliant team move, involving Isco, Benzema and Marcelo, found Vazquez free at the back post.

Bale had been replaced by Isco, exchanging a hand slap with Zidane as he went, before Losada prodded home in injury-time.

AFP

Super Eagles Forward, Samuel Chukwueze Rejoins Villareal

Super Eagles winger, Samuel Chukwueze.

 

Ahead of the 2019-20 La Liga season, the Super Eagles winger, Samuel Chukwueze, has rejoined his Spanish club, Villarreal.

Chukwueze, who scored once as Nigeria finished third in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, was given an extended break.

READ ALSO: United Make Maguire World’s Most Expensive Defender

The Yellow Submarine took to Twitter to confirm his pre-season arrival on Monday.

“He’s here! @chukwueze_8 started his special #YellowsPreseason training programme at the Training Ground after taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations with @NGSuperEagles. Great to have you back, Samu!” the club said.

The 20-year-old scored eight goals in 38 appearances across all competitions last season, to help Javier Calleja’s men finish 14th in LaLiga.

Chukweze will be expected to play a part when Villarreal take on La Nucia in a pre-season game on Wednesday.

Messi Out With Injury Ahead Of La Liga Restart

Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi waves before the 54th Joan Gamper Trophy friendly football match between Barcelona and Arsenal at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 4, 2019. PHOTO: Josep LAGO / AFP

 

Barcelona captain Lionel Messi is out of action less than two weeks ahead of the opening of La Liga season after injuring his right calf in training on Monday.

The Argentina star has already been ruled out of the team’s trip to Florida for a one-off friendly against Napoli in Miami on Wednesday.

“Tests carried out have diagnosed a grade 1 calf strain,” the Spanish champions said in a statement, an injury that can require around two weeks of recuperation.

“Messi will remain in Barcelona and will now not travel to the USA for the club’s tour. His availability to come back to action will be dictated by his recovery from the injury.”

The club open the new La Liga campaign at Athletic Bilbao on August 16.

AFP

La Liga To Introduce First Female Official Next Season

 

La Liga is set to have its first female official next season, the Spanish Football Federation announced on Tuesday.

Guadalupe Porras Ayuso, a 32-year-old assistant referee, will become the first woman ever to officiate in the league.

“The assistant referee will be the first woman to debut in the top flight,” the RFEF said in a statement.

Another female referee, Marisa Villa, was named in La Liga’s list in 2007 but did not pass the physical tests required to officiate a match.

Porras Ayuso has worked in Segunda, the men’s second division, for two seasons and before that officiated for eight seasons in Segunda B, the third division in Spain.

Her promotion is another boost for gender equality in Spanish football, following a year of unprecedented interest in the women’s game.

A European record crowd of 60,739 watched Barcelona play Atletico Madrid in Liga Iberdrola at the Metropolitano in March.

And Spain made its best ever run at the Women’s World Cup last month, reaching the last 16 before losing to the United States.

‘I Am Responsible,’ Zidane Apologises After Madrid Loss

Real Madrid’s French coach Zinedine Zidane attends the Spanish League football match between Rayo Vallecano and Real Madrid at the Vallecas Stadium in the Madrid district of Puente de Vallecas on April 28, 2019. Benjamin CREMEL / AFP

 

Zinedine Zidane apologised and said he wished Real Madrid’s miserable season would end now after they were beaten by 19th-placed Rayo Vallecano on Sunday.

Madrid’s response to Barcelona winning the title on Saturday night was to slip to a 1-0 defeat at Vallecas and fall 18 points behind La Liga’s newly-crowned champions.

Zidane took over knowing Madrid’s title challenge was all-but extinguished but the difference on Barca then was 12 points while catching Atletico Madrid, now nine ahead seemed achievable.

Adri Embarba’s penalty, given after consultation with VAR, was enough for Rayo, who move to within six points of survival, with three games left to play.

READ ALSO: Flying Eagles Arrive In Germany For U20 World Cup Training

“Today we did nothing,” Zidane said. “From minute one until the end, at all levels. Sometimes you cannot score but today we did not even create chances, did not play at all.

“We must be very angry. I am angry because the image we gave off today was bad. I am responsible for this as well, not just the players. But we have to apologise for our performance today, all of us.”

The gap widens between them and Barcelona, whose players had been dancing on the pitch at Camp Nou the night before and posing for photos with their children after wrapping up a fourth La Liga title in five years.

Asked if he would like the season to end now, Zidane said: “Yes, but we have to play these three games and do something different. We cannot end like this.

“It is about me as well, today what I did in the shape of the team, it didn’t work at all. We must respect football and what this club represents.”

Not since March 31 has anyone except Karim Benzema, out with a hamstring injury, scored for Madrid, who created precious few chances against a Rayo side that have conceded 62 goals this term. No side in the division has shipped more.

Zidane said last week that the league would be the club’s first priority from August but, even with new signings and fresh motivation, it could prove difficult to flick the switch. Madrid’s winning habit has long been lost.

Rayo’s last victory over Real at Vallecas was in 1997, by the same scoreline, and this time they were without their top scorer too, Raul de Tomas, who is on loan from Madrid and ineligible to face his parent club.

Zidane handed Gareth Bale another chance but he struggled to impress while Thibaut Courtois made his first start under the Frenchman, in ahead of Keylor Navas.

Rayo won their penalty in the 23rd minute as referee Pablo Gonzalez took advice from VAR before judging Jesus Vallejo to have hauled down Javi Guerra in the box. Embarba made no mistake.

Madrid wanted their own spot-kick when Mariano Diaz took a tumble from a corner but Gonzalez was unmoved, and the second half was surprisingly comfortable for Rayo.

Bale’s free-kick was palmed away by Garcia while Zidane threw on Brahim Diaz, Lucas Vazquez and Isco in search of some inspiration. It never came.

Top-four race stays wide open 

Beneath Madrid, La Liga’s last Champions League spot remains up for grabs after Valencia, Sevilla and Getafe all endured surprise defeats earlier on Sunday.

Valencia lost 1-0 at home to Eibar while Sevilla were beaten by the same scoreline away to struggling Girona, whose victory could prove crucial in their fight against relegation.

Both slips gave Getafe the opportunity to pull clear in the three-way race for fourth but they stumbled too, edged out 2-1 away to Real Sociedad.

Getafe stay ahead of Sevilla only on head-to-head, with Valencia three points behind and perhaps looking to the Europa League as their best hope of Champions League football next season.

AFP

Messi Fires Barca To Eighth La Liga Title In 11 Years

Messi Fires Barcelona To 26th Spanish La Liga Title
Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi shoots to score a goal during the Spanish League football match between FC Barcelona and Levante UD at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on April 27, 2019. LLUIS GENE / AFP

 

Lionel Messi clinched an eighth La Liga title for Barcelona in 11 seasons on Saturday as he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at home to Levante.

The Argentine star struck his league-leading 34th goal of the campaign after coming off the bench for the second half to help Barca wrap up the title with three games remaining.

Barca hold a nine-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, but the Catalans cannot be overtaken thanks to their superior head-to-head record.

It is Barca’s 26th league title and nudges them closer to Real Madrid’s record of 33 in Spain.

“To win the title with a distance and gap is difficult with the rivals we have. We’ve done it two years in a row,” Barca coach Ernesto Valverde told Movistar.

“We’re happy and to see people enjoying it makes us proud. But we still have challenges ahead.”

Valverde initially left Messi on the bench with Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool in mind, but he replaced Philippe Coutinho at the break at the Camp Nou.

Coutinho and Luis Suarez pressed Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez into action early on, the Brazilian coming closest to breaking the deadlock when his free-kick rattled the crossbar shortly before half-time.

He was sacrificed for Messi though, and it proved an inspired decision as the Argentine swept in the winner on 62 minutes following a frantic scramble inside the Levante area.

The visitors, not yet safe from the threat of relegation, responded and put Barca on the defensive but were denied a last-gasp equaliser when the ball hit the post and rolled into the grateful arms of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

“In the end he scored the goal. He always scores goals everywhere,” Valverde said of Messi, who celebrated winning his 10th league crown.

Atletico delay the party

Atletico had delayed Barca’s title party earlier in the day as they scraped past strugglers Real Valladolid 1-0 after surviving late VAR penalty drama.

Joaquin Fernandez’s own goal put Atletico ahead midway through the second half, but they had to endure a nervy final few minutes in which Jan Oblak had to be at his best and they survived a late VAR check over what looked like a clear Santiago Arias handball in the area.

“It’s controversial, a ball that hits the hand and the referee’s decision is to see if it’s voluntary or not,” said Saul Niguez, whose cross led to their fortunate winner.

Diego Simeone’s side are nine points ahead of local rivals and reigning European champions Real Madrid, who travel to Rayo Vallecano on Sunday amid increasing speculation they will respond to a disappointing season by swooping for Eden Hazard and Neymar.

“It’s what we deserve, no more, no less. We’ve come so far,” added Saul.

“There were moments when we wanted to be first and others that I would say no, that’s what we deserve.”

Valladolid meanwhile stay 17th, just one point and a place away from the relegation zone after a match they will feel they were unlucky to lose.

Earlier on Saturday, Athletic Bilbao and Alaves did their chances of European football next season no favours with a 1-1 draw in the Basque Country.

Seventh-placed Bilbao are five points away from the Champions league places — with Alaves a further three points back — and could also see Valencia and Sevilla take the Europa league further away from them when they take on Eibar and Girona.

AFP