Lionel Messi takes a free kick during their Spanish League match against Deportivo Alaves. AFP
Barcelona might not be able to catch Atletico Madrid but they may fancy their chances against Paris Saint-Germain after Lionel Messi scored twice in a 5-1 thrashing of Alaves on Saturday.
Messi fired in two sensational long-range efforts and would have had a hat-trick at Camp Nou had a dubious VAR decision in the first half not ruled Antoine Griezmann offside.
He did tee up a second of the night for the 21-year-old Francisco Trincao and was instrumental in Junior Firpo adding a fifth too, a flamboyant scoop freeing Griezmann to send a pass to Firpo at the back post.
“Leo is focused, he’s happy, he’s ruthless. When we play those passes through the lines to him and he finds those gaps, everything is easier,” said Ronald Koeman.
Victory means Barca trail Atletico by eight points again after the leaders temporarily pulled 11 clear thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 win over Granada earlier on Saturday.
The question is whether a free-flowing Barca attack, full of talent and orchestrated by Messi, can hurt PSG enough to make up for what remains a shaky defence, depleted by injuries and vulnerable to the counter-attack.
“We’re in good form,” said Koeman. “We keep creating chances and improving in all aspects of our game. PSG are a great team but I see the tie as very balanced. We go into it with confidence, knowing we need to be at our best to go through.”
With Gerard Pique and the emerging Ronald Araujo both out injured, Frenkie de Jong filled in again in central defence, although the Dutchman has arguably been Barcelona’s most improved player this year in the midfield three.
Instead there was a start for Ilaix Kourouma in midfield, the 18-year-old academy product who assisted Trincao’s opening goal but whose misplaced pass led to Luis Rioja briefly giving Alaves hope.
After Trincao had swept home, Messi thought he had made it two, pouncing on a rebound after Griezmann missed but the goal was ruled out, even though replays suggested Griezmann was onside.
Messi made amends soon after, latching onto a Sergio Busquets pass, darting in-field and ripping a shot in off the post.
Rioja capitalised on Ilaix’s mistake just before the hour but Barca pulled away with three goals in six minutes.
Pedri’s pass freed Messi but he failed to round Fernando Pacheco and instead the ball spilled out for Trincao to score his second.
Messi slammed a stinging strike into the top corner from 25 yards to make it 4-1 before perhaps the goal of the night came last, Messi scooping over for Griezmann, who volleyed to the back post where Firpo could not miss.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid appear to be gaining momentum ahead of the Champions League knockout stage, with a 2-0 win over Valencia on Sunday putting them back within sight of La Liga leaders Atletico.
Valencia were in the last 16 of Europe’s premier tournament last season too but their plummet from the elite was exposed by Zinedine Zidane’s team, who strolled to victory at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium.
Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos had Madrid two up at half-time while left-back Ferland Mendy stabbed in a third that was ruled out for offside. Such was Madrid’s comfort, Zidane was able to withdraw key players in the second half.
There was certainly never any prospect of a comeback from Valencia, who were flat and almost accepting of a defeat that leaves them only three points above La Liga’s relegation zone.
In all likelihood, there will be three worse teams than Valencia come the end of the season but the dismantling of the squad under owner Peter Lim has made survival far from a guarantee.
Real’s own title ambitions looked to be over when they were beaten by Levante at the end of the last month but three wins on the bounce since then have raised some hope of a comeback.
At the very least, Real seem to be finding some rhythm and if La Liga proves a step too far, perhaps they will focus more on the Champions League, where they have so often delivered when it matters.
Atalanta will offer a much sterner test in the last 16 and Zidane will have been disappointed to see Dani Carvajal trudge off injured after just 25 minutes in his first game back following a groin strain.
With Sergio Ramos also out, Nacho Fernandez continued at centre-back while Eden Hazard’s latest absence gave Vinicius Junior a chance in the front three, with the Brazilian enjoying one of his better afternoons along with Benzema and the resurgent Marco Asensio.
Atletico Madrid came from behind to beat Valencia 3-1 on Sunday and move seven points clear at the top of La Liga after Uruguayan star Luis Suarez scored a brilliant team goal, their second on the night. Real Madrid’s earlier thrashing of Alaves
While Barcelona was working to keep Lionel Messi, defending champion Real Madrid was quietly making moves to get ready for the Spanish league season.
The draw meant the Catalans stayed second in the standings on 70 points and leaders Real Madrid, who have 71, will go four points clear at the top with five games left if they beat Getafe at home on Thursday.
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The seven-a-side tournament was held to mark the UAE’s Golden Jubilee celebrations and held at the Ocean Fair Cricket ground in Dubai Investment Park.
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