Barcelona pile on title pressure
Barcelona left it late against Real Valladolid but did take home all three points to cut the gap to leaders Atletico Madrid to just a single point with nine games to play.
It’s a big turnaround from the start of the year when Atletico were 10 points ahead, almost out of sight and with the title seemingly all wrapped up.
Yet Barca have reeled the Rojiblancos in with a 19-match unbeaten run and will be crowned champions if they win their last nine games which includes a visit from the Rojiblancos in March.
There’s still a long way to go of course and some tricky fixtures to negotiate, starting on Saturday with El Clasico. However, Monday’s win was crucial, and although it was hardly a vintage performance the team got the job done.
International break disrupts Barca
Barca had been flying before the international break, as evidenced in the 6-1 win over Real Sociedad just two weeks ago, but it was a different story against Real Valladolid.
The visitors arrived without a host of players due to injury and illness but put up a great fight defensively and had several dangerous moments.
Barcelona looked sluggish in contrast and struggled to find the sparkling form they had shown earlier in the year.
Lionel Messi looked rusty rather than refreshed, Antoine Griezmann was ineffective yet again, and Frenkie de Jong was clearly worried about picking up a yellow card that would have ruled him out of El Clasico.
Messi was overheard in the tunnel at half-time telling his team to step it up after the break and the players did somehow manage to get the job done. It wasn’t convincing at all and Barca must be much better if they are to beat Real Madrid on Saturday.
Dembele shows his importance
Monday’s match-winner was Ousmane Dembele who netted his 10th goal of the season in the 90th minute to secure a priceless win for the hosts.
The Frenchman was also involved in another key moment 10 minutes earlier when Oscar Plano was given his marching orders for bringing him down when he was racing forwards.
Dembele has become a key player under Ronald Koeman after returning to full fitness and the improvements he has made this season are obvious.
The Frenchman has been wasteful in front of goal this season too but found a brilliant finish when it was needed to break Real Valladolid’s hearts.
Koeman spoke about wanting to keep hold of Dembele after the game, and this was another performance that may tempt Barca into getting that contract extension sorted quickly.
Koeman to make changes for El Clasico?
The Barcelona boss kept faith with the same starting XI for Monday’s match, leaving Ronald Araujo on the bench again, but changes may be coming for El Clasico after a disappointing performance.
Araujo will be hoping to start, or possibly Gerard Pique if he’s fit, which would allow Frenkie de Jong to return to midfield. The Dutchman started in defense against Real Valladolid but moved back into midfield in the second half which allowed him to burst forward.
Koeman must also decide what to do with Antoine Griezmann. Once again the Frenchman worked hard but was ineffective. He also headed a good chance wide after Jordi Masip had saved from Dembele and it was no surprise to see him hooked.
Riqui Puig deserves more than just a few minutes
Riqui Puig had to wait until the 87th minute to get onto the pitch for Barcelona but still managed to get involved in the build-up to the winning goal.
The 21-year-old was making his 11th appearance for Barcelona this season in La Liga but has only totaled 198 minutes of game time as he’s usually a (very) late substitute.
It almost felt like a last throw of the dice by Koeman to send Puig on despite his team crying out for the sort of invention and energy the youngster brings to the game.
It’s clear that Puig has a long way to go to earn Koeman’s trust, but the midfielder does seem to make things happen whenever he does play, and he deserves more than just the odd minute here and there he’s getting right now at the Camp Nou.