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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

With Madrid set to impose direct rule over Catalonia, Barcelona lord it over bottom club Malaga

Gerard Deulofeu and Andres Iniesta goals seal 2-0 win at Camp Nou on Saturday

Barcelona's Andres Iniesta, right, celebrates after scoring against Malaga at Camp Nou. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo
Barcelona's Andres Iniesta, right, celebrates after scoring against Malaga at Camp Nou. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo

Saturday was a significant day in Barcelona, for both the football club and for the city. While the politics of Catalonia again saw the city in the spotlight of global news, the first home league game since the behind-closed-doors Las Palmas match went ahead as normal, with the chants for Catalan independence and liberty pronounced amid a flag waving separatist fervour.

Barcelona beat bottom club Malaga as expected, though they were fortunate with the goal in the first minute. The ball had gone beyond the by-line when Lucas Digne crossed for Gerard Deulofeu, who scored a first goal in 16 games this season. Prolific he isn’t, but he was rewarded with applause and his name sung from another vocal crowd when he was substituted with 18 minutes left.

For Malaga, without a win in their opening eight matches, they were being kicked while they are down. Their players - the majority of them new arrivals under manager Michel - protested, but the goal stood.

There were no doubts about the Catalans’ second after 55 minutes when Lionel Messi whizzed forward from midfield and slipped the ball wide to Andres Iniesta, who struck the ball upwards across goalkeeper Andres Prieto and into top-left corner.

There were more independence chants 17 minutes into the second half. They were loud, but it wasn’t fevered. Perhaps some of the fans had joined the 450,000 other pro-independence marchers in the centre of Barcelona.

Out-of-form Luis Suarez missed a chance to make it 3-0 with 18 minutes to play, while substitute Paulinho was applauded to show his rising stock among fans, many of whom were underwhelmed when he signed from the Chinese Super League in the summer.

The win was expected and kept Barca clear of an increasingly impressive Valencia, who beat Sevilla and remain unbeaten after nine games. Real Madrid, in third, entertain Eibar on Sunday. Barca and Valencia have scored substantially more than the rest, with the Catalans’ 26 goals just shy of three goals per game.

What makes Barça’s run more impressive is that they have conceded only three goals all season. This was not expected at the start of the season after they were outclassed by Real in two Spanish Super Cup matches, though no team has enjoyed such a favourable run of opponents as Ernesto Valverde’s side. The trip to Valencia on November 26 is already looking like the most intriguing fixture of the season so far.

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Barca’s game followed the club’s annual general meeting, when club president Josep Maria Bartomeu assured members that they have no plans to leave La Liga, despite La Liga president Javier Tebas stating that Barcelona would not be able to continue in the case of an independent Catalonia.

“We want to continue playing in La Liga and, as of today, our participation is guaranteed,” attested Bartomeu. “It’s mutually beneficial for La Liga and Barcelona for that link to continue.”

The club also announced that their revenue was set to rise to a record €897 million (Dh3.8 billion) for 2017 and that they are searching for a sponsor for the redeveloped Camp Nou, with work beginning in 2019. Barca’s 143,855 members will be consulted, 92 per cent of whom live in Catalonia.

Bartomeu insisted before the game that FC Barcelona “are not an instrument to be manipulated for political interests, whatever they may be. Nobody can appropriate our badge or flag.”

Barca have backed Catalonia’s right to self-determination but refuse to position themselves on either side of the independence debate. For the last 10 minutes of the Malaga game, Barcelona’s attackers refused to position themselves on the right side of the referee’s onside flag, but it was another solid, not spectacular win for the league leaders.