BARCELONA — Ernesto Valverde says Barcelona’s record-equalling 38-game unbeaten run shows that the league leaders are as good as any side that have played in Spain’s top flight.
A 45th career hat trick from Lionel Messi helped Barca to a 3-1 win against Leganes as they matched Real Sociedad’s 38-year record for consecutive matches unbeaten in La Liga.
It’s a mark that previous Barca sides managed by Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid teams coached by Jose Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane never even got close to matching.
The streak started a year ago this weekend, when Luis Enrique was still in charge, after Barca were beaten by Malaga at La Rosaleda. That was followed by seven consecutive wins before Valverde took on the job in a summer which included the sale of Neymar and Spanish Super Cup humiliation against Madrid.
However, he quickly turned things around and Barca remain on course to go the whole league campaign unbeaten after winning 24 and drawing seven of their first 31 games. They can take La Real’s record when they host Valencia next weekend.
“It’s not just me that’s achieved this record, but also Luis Enrique, as it’s spread over the course of two seasons,” Valverde said in a news conference. “It’s been difficult, very difficult. It’s a historical record which has stood for a long, long time, so that gives you an idea of the competitiveness of this team.”
Barca’s win against Leganes took them 12 points clear of second-placed Atletico, who travel to rivals Real in the Madrid derby on Sunday.
However, despite having just seven games left, Valverde insisted it would be an error to believe the league trophy is already on its way to Camp Nou.
“If you start to feel like you’ve won the league already, then you’re starting to make a mistake,” the coach added. “We haven’t won anything yet. We’ve had to fight to reach this point and we’re going to have to keep fighting like this until the very end — the same as our rivals.”
Messi’s treble took his tally of league goals for the season to 29, while he’s now scored from outside the penalty area in each of his last six league outings.
Saturday’s performance came amid doubts about his fitness after he was left on the bench against Sevilla last weekend and looked half-fit against Roma in the Champions League in midweek.
“We think Messi is fine,” Valverde said of the forward’s physical condition going into the final stretch of the season. “And when he’s scoring goals that always helps.
“We believe that he’s better off when he’s playing. He can manage the problem he has perfectly well. You’ve already seen that.”
On a record-equalling night, though, Valverde was disappointed to see his team switch off for the third home game running after racing into an early lead, and saw Nabil El Zhar cut Leganes’ deficit to one before Messi completed his hat trick.
“We were great in the first half, generating a lot of chances and we could have had a bigger lead,” he said. “But we didn’t keep the rhythm going after the break, we slowed down a little bit.
“It happened against Athletic [Bilbao] and Roma, too. Then we make an error and Leganes are back in the game. We have to maintain our rhythm better than that. After a great first half, we’re left with the sensation that we put ourselves in danger slightly.”
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