Madrid (AFP) – Barcelona’s 11-point advantage over Atletico Madrid became nine on Saturday as Lionel Messi was left out of their goalless draw with Huesca and Gerard Pique watched on television with a bowl of prawns.
With Barca’s focus clearly on Manchester United, Messi and Pique were among 10 players rested for the stalemate at El Alcoraz as coach Ernesto Valverde prioritised Tuesday’s second leg and progress to the Champions League semi-finals.
The price was two points dropped and Atletico capitalised, beating Celta Vigo 2-0 thanks to a thundering Antoine Griezmann free-kick and a cool finish from Alvaro Morata.
“Obviously we always want to win but it’s true this game came in slightly different circumstances,” Valverde said.
“It is an unusual week because we come from playing an intense match on Wednesday, when the trip was long, and we have the return on Tuesday.
“Considering the schedule and our advantage in the league, I thought it was time to make changes.”
Messi was left out of the squad completely while the suspended Pique posted a picture on social media of the match on television, in front of him a large bowl of seafood.
Barcelona’s huge advantage at the top of La Liga has afforded them the luxury of prioritising success in Europe, the only issue perhaps for Valverde the matter of maintaining momentum.
Overall, they were better than Huesca but never really got out of second gear.
Luis Suarez was also banned, with Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Clement Lenglet given the chance to recuperate too ahead of the return against United at Camp Nou, where Barca will start with 1-0 lead from the first leg.
Ousmane Dembele’s chance of a start there would appear enhanced after he played 67 minutes following his recovery from a hamstring injury.
Malcom came closest to a winner, his shot hitting the post, but Huesca were good value for the draw and could even have snatched victory themselves in the second half.
Still bottom of the table in their first-ever season in Spain’s top flight, Huesca now sit five adrift of safety, albeit having played a game more than those immediately above them. Their survival bid remains unlikely but alive.
Celta’s defeat to Atletico means they are still in the scrap, two points separating them from the bottom three.
– Barca focused on Europe –
Dembele came closest to a goal in the first half after a brilliant reverse pass from the talented Riqui Puig, one of a number of youngsters given a chance to impress.
Another was Jean-Clair Todibo, who saw a header saved while Kevin-Prince Boateng, also handed a rare outing after his arrival in January, was unable to connect with a low Dembele cross.
Huesca had their moments as Enric Gallego burst through but shot wide and then he wanted a penalty after Marc-Andre ter Stegen slid through the back of his legs.
Malcom struck the post with a fizzing drive but despite Jordi Alba, Philippe Coutinho and Arthur Melo all coming on in the second half, Barca could not find a way through.
The onus was on Atletico to take advantage at the Wanda Metropolitano even if any chase, with six games left to play, will surely prove fruitless.
Griezmann’s free-kick flew into the top corner just before half-time and he then teed up Morata to make it two, the Spaniard carrying it around the goalkeeper for his seventh goal in 10 games.
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