Barcelona defeat Leganes to stay on course for La Liga title - now focus should be on Champions League success
A 3-1 win at Camp Nou gives Barca a five-point lead in a league competition they have won for seven of the past 10 seasons
Camp Nou’s smallest league crowd of the season was stunned. Barcelona were doing what Barcelona do, beating an opponent at home where they have won 12 of 16 games and lost only once this season.
Victories are routine, and when Barca led 1-0 at half-time against Leganes, all seemed normal, even if Lionel Messi was on the bench. It was only the second time this season that he hadn’t started a league game when fit.
The crowd were chanting for Messi, not out of desperation, but because he is the best player in the world.
Then Leganes scored, a 56th minute finish from Martin Braithwaite, the Danish striker on loan from Middlesbrough. Leganes are 14th in the Primera Liga table, but they have beaten Barca and drawn with Sevilla and Atletico this term. They also beat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey – though they lost the tie on aggregate.
With second-placed Atletico Madrid and third-placed Real Madrid having won in earlier in the weekend, the Catalans were under pressure on a chilly night.
Enter Messi in the 64th minute for Arthur. Five minutes later, Barca’s No 10 struck a superb shot from 25 metres. Leganes goalkeeper Cuellar saved it but Luis Suarez followed the ball into the net. A VAR check confirmed that Suarez had not fouled Cuellar and the goal stood. Barca regained their lead and never let go to make it seven straight league wins.
The Catalans remain in form, and with the games coming thick and fast, they need to be: with two Copa del Rey ties, Ernesto Valverde’s side have five home games in 22 days.
Ousame Dembele put his side ahead after 32 minutes, opening his legs before side-footing a cross from Jordi Alba across the Leganes goal and in off the post. The move started when Gerard Pique surged forward up the wing, came through a tangle of white-shirted opponents and released the ball to Carles Alena, who passed wide to Alba.
It was Dembele’s third Camp Nou goal in three days, his 13th of a very good season in which he has become a success for his side. He later left the field with an ankle injury and will undergo tests.
Messi made it 3-1 in injury time in front of Barca’s lowest league crowd of the season - 50,670 - linking up well, as he so often does, with Alba before striking a right footed shot into the roof of the net.
Barca are on a roll but what is overall success for this team this season?
This was the question posed by former Barca player Jordi Cruyff to this writer last week as he tried to define it.
“Real Madrid won the Champions League without being the best team in Europe last season," he said. "They were 17 points behind in the league again and they’re behind again this season.
"You don’t need to be the best team to win the Champions League; you need to be the best in the key moment of the competition. The domestic league is a real barometer of how good a team is overall, that is your real competition.”
Barca are the best team in Spain and supporters of the club will celebrate that, yet Real Madrid have called themselves world champions in four of the last five years.
As the Primera Liga season ticked into its second half, the Catalans are five points clear of a league they have led all season.
If they fail to take the title, as they have done in seven of the past 10 seasons, that will be seen as a failure, especially as they are 10 points clear of Madrid.
Barca have also won the past four Copa del Rey competitions. The domestic double – an incredible achievement – is now seen as the norm. Adding another Champions League trophy will make it a special season.
Resting Messi against Leganes was done with the long term in mind, especially with what happened last season in mind.
Barca beat Leganes 3-1 in the corresponding fixture, with Messi scoring a hat-trick. Three days later they were knocked out of the Champions League by Roma, with Luis Suarez admitting he shouldn't have played against Leganes.
They have a tough away cup game at Sevilla midweek after a 3-1 victory – and don’t want a repeat of what happened after they last beat Leganes 3-1.
Updated: January 21, 2019 08:57 AM