Defenders Clement Lenglet and Jordi Alba were the unlikely heroes as Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 2-1 at Camp Nou to move within two wins of the Liga title.
Lenglet headed home an Ousmane Dembele corner on the stroke of half-time to open the scoring, but La Real levelled after the break through Juanmi. However, Barca responded one minute later when, having been found by Lionel Messi, Alba cut onto his right foot and drilled into the bottom corner.
Performances do not completely go out the window at this stage of the season, but Barca will certainly value other things more than the aesthetics of their display. This win moves them closer to an eighth league title in 11 years; wins vs. Alaves on Tuesday and Levante four days later will seal it and confirmation might arrive sooner if Atletico Madrid slip up against Valencia in midweek.
Moreover, with a Champions League semifinal doubleheader to come against Liverpool, it is important to keep players fit. There were no new injury concerns on Saturday, while Ousmane Dembele logged another 60 minutes as he continues to find rhythm after a month on the sidelines.
Barca did not put their foot on the accelerator after opening the scoring, which allowed their opponents back into the game. Following the midweek win over Manchester United, it was natural that intensity would drop, but it is something Ernesto Valverde’s men will need to avoid in bigger games.
Manager rating out of 10
7 — Valverde is nothing if not predictable. Based upon who starts, you can usually tell who his three substitutes will be and this time Sergio Busquets, Philippe Coutinho and Sergi Roberto came on. It seems the manager has a nucleus of 14 trustworthy players and it is that pool to whom he will turn in the Champions League.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 7 — Made a great save from Juanmi in the first half and another from Ruben Pardo after the break, but could do little about the goal. Good distribution as usual.
DF Nelson Semedo, 6 — He had a comfortable night and brought a couple of “woos” from the crowd with some fancy turns to get out of trouble. His battle for the right-back spot with Sergi Roberto is bringing the best out of him.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 — Has been flawless for most of the season and was another decent display, but he did switch off to let in Juanmi. Pique read the game well and carried the ball forward at every given opportunity.
DF Clement Lenglet, 8 — He is having an unexpectedly great season and has been so reliable as Pique’s partner, that Samuel Umtiti has been forced onto the bench. Lenglet’s great header also meant his 40th appearance yielded his first league goal for the club.
DF Jordi Alba, 8 — Sometimes he is inhibited with Dembele ahead of him, but this time he got forward whenever possible. He scored the winner with his second league goal of the campaign; with eight assists to boot, he is the top defender in La Liga goal contributions.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 — Always looks comfortable when he sits back in Busquets’ deep midfield role, though he also got forward to set up chances for others and create one of his own, which he fired into the side netting.
MF Arturo Vidal, 7 — Rarely disappoints when he is picked, popping up in every area of the pitch, and he must wonder what he has to do to earn his place in a big game.
MF Arthur Melo, 6 — Comfortable in possession but unable to make things happen further forward against well-drilled opposition. Did not complete 90 minutes once again, this time being replaced before the hour mark.
FW Lionel Messi, 6 — Seemed quite happy to play at half speed as long as Barca were in control but, even so, he set up Alba’s goal, almost made others and had a couple of half chances for himself. Bigger challenges are on his mind.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 — He came close to breaking the deadlock early with a stinging effort that was saved by Geronimo Rulli, but some of Suarez’s best work came away from goal, with fine passes to Vidal and Rakitic in the second half that set up chances.
FW Ousmane Dembele, 6 — A rusty performance as he works his way back from a hamstring injury, but he nevertheless managed to cause problems with his pace and delivered a wicked corner for Lenglet’s goal.
MF Sergio Busquets, 5 — Introduced for Arthur at the start of the second half, which allowed Rakitic more license to attack.
FW Philippe Coutinho, 5 — Whistled by some supporters following his midweek goal celebration, when he cupped his ear in response to criticism, and did not have long to make an impression.
MF Sergi Roberto, NR — Came on in stoppage-time.