Ousmane Dembele scored twice as Barcelona thrashed Villarreal 5-1 on Wednesday and edged closer to their first-ever unbeaten season in La Liga.
Lionel Messi volleyed in a sumptuous pass from Andres Iniesta at Camp Nou to put Barca three up at half-time after Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho had scored one apiece in the first 16 minutes.
The second period, however, belonged to Dembele, who capped an excellent individual display with two goals after the Frenchman’s sensational run had also earlier set up Coutinho.
Villarreal managed a consolation when Pablo Fornals’ shot deflected in off Nicola Sansone but any fears Ernesto Valverde’s side would feel the effects of Sunday’s ‘Clasico’ proved unfounded.
The league leaders moved 15 points clear of Atletico Madrid at the top while Villarreal stay sixth.
Barca drew last weekend against Real Madrid, despite playing the entire second half with 10 men, and they now need only avoid defeat in matches away at Levante and home to Real Sociedad to complete the campaign as invincibles.
It would be the first time a team has finished a 38-game La Liga season unbeaten and the first in any format since Real avoided defeat in a division of only 10 teams in 1932.
“In the end we have scored two great goals, we are happy about this and we keep the run going,” Valverde said.
Already crowned champions and winners of the Copa del Rey, Barca were controversially denied a guard of honour by Real but Villarreal were happy to perform the ‘pasillo’ as the hosts walked out before kick-off.
Valverde left some key players out, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba and Ivan Rakitic all missing from the starting line-up.
Messi, however, was included despite calls for the Argentinian now to be rested ahead of this summer’s World Cup.
It meant a start for Dembele, who took his chance to impress with the stand-out performance of the night.
Dembele has endured a difficult debut season since joining for 147 million euros from Borussia Dortmund last year but Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu said this week he is not for sale, and the 20-year-old delivered the perfect response.
“He is a player that has a lot of talent,” Valverde said. “He is fast, he has this spark. All players need a process of adaptation and when you are young you still have to learn. Next year Dembele will be with us.”
His run that set up Coutinho’s opener in the 11th minute was arguably the moment of the match as he picked up the ball 10 yards inside Villarreal’s half before driving past three defenders and unleashing a shot.
Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo palmed the ball away but only to Coutinho, who was left with a tap-in.
Paulinho doubled Barca’s lead five minutes later after a brilliant Iniesta pass allowed Lucas Digne to slide the ball across goal. Paulinho finished at the back post.
Iniesta was at the heart of the home side’s third too, this time a chipped ball playing in the darting Messi, who side-footed home on the volley.
Villarreal pulled one back after half-time when Fornals’ shot clipped the shoulder of Sansone to wrong-foot Jasper Cillessen.
But Dembele grabbed a late brace, his first an easy finish after a brilliant run by Rakitic down the right, his second coming after he sped away from Villarreal’s defence, and lifted the ball over the helpless Asenjo.