Barcelona (AFP) – Barcelona needed a dubious late penalty given by VAR and converted by Lionel Messi to scrape past Real Sociedad 1-0 on Saturday and avoid another slip-up in La Liga’s title race.
Messi’s 24th goal of the season, and fifth in four games, was enough to save Barca, despite a drab display that threatened to bring more disappointment following last weekend’s loss against Real Madrid.
Madrid drop to second in the table but can restore their one-point advantage at the top by winning away at struggling Real Betis on Sunday night.
Their Clasico victory at the Santiago Bernabeu put the pressure back on Barcelona, whose response was hardly resounding, with Quique Setien’s side ultimately reliant on VAR to spot a handball in the 81st minute from Robin Le Normand.
The lack of appeal from Barca’s players and the chunk of play that passed before VAR intervened made the decision all the more surprising and la Real’s players were still shaking their heads at the final whistle.
Yet the win was all-important for the Catalans at the end of another week dominated by headlines surrounding problems off the pitch.
Setien said he had apologised to the squad after his assistant Eder Sarabia was shown to have launched into a number of foul-mouthed rants against the players during the game against Madrid, even if there were chants in support of Sarabia before kick-off.
Barcelona created a handful of openings during the first half and Martin Braithwaite, making his first start, was at the heart of most of them, with his willingness to run in behind offering a good alternative in attack.
Twice Messi sent Braithwaite free early on but his lung-busting runs ended in tame shots, even if they were still greatly appreciated by an encouraging home crowd. When he did hit one into the net, he was pulled back for offside.
Messi created a chance of his own by hunting the ball down in the corner before retrieving a chipped Sergio Busquets pass over the top only to scuff the finish.
The chances came more frequently in the second half as Barca turned the screw. Messi slid one past the post and then sliced another over from Antoine Griezmann’s cushioned header.
Ivan Rakitic’s drive was parried, Gerard Pique’s header too straight and Jordi Alba’s ball across the face of goal just too far ahead of the diving Rakitic.
As chances went begging, la Real sensed an opportunity. Nacho Monreal flashed wide and Alexander Isak hammered over.
But just as the tension was growing, Barcelona were leant a helping hand, with VAR reviewing a handball from Le Normand and referee Martinez Munera persuaded to award the penalty. Messi made no mistake.
Atletico Madrid will hope for a tighter contest against Liverpool in the Champions League on Wednesday than their frantic 2-2 draw against Sevilla earlier on Saturday.
Joao Felix looked as sharp at the Wanda Metropolitano as he has done all season and completed a four-minute comeback for Atletico after Alvaro Morata’s penalty cancelled out Luuk de Jong’s opener for Sevilla.
But Lucas Ocampos levelled with another penalty at the end of a pulsating first half, again with the help of VAR after a foul by Kieran Trippier, whose involvement at Anfield on Wednesday could be in doubt.
Trippier took treatment after a heavy challenge from Nemanja Gudelj in the second half although the defender was able to finish the game and coach Diego Simeone insisted afterwards the problem was cramp.
The draw will be more gratefully received by Sevilla, who sit third in La Liga and two points ahead of Atletico, who stay fifth after missing an opportunity to close the gap.
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