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.
Barcelona and Real Madrid have both played a game more than Atleti, with Zinedine Zidane’s side facing Valencia at home on Sunday.
Atletico’s win was a significant psychological boost on the back of slipping up for the first time in nine games at home to Celta Vigo earlier this week.
Their advantage may prove too big to close but Barcelona’s Champions League tie against PSG, which had the French side as firm favourites when the draw was made in December, now feels harder to call.
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.
– Late flurry wraps up win –
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.
Atletico had earlier swerved a second consecutive slip by squeezing past Granada at Los Carmenes, a victory secured by Angel Correa’s fortuitous winner in the second half.
There was a hint of luck in Granada’s equaliser too, Yangel Herrera’s shot deflecting off Marcos Llorente, who had himself put Atletico in front only three minutes earlier.
“The most important thing today was the fight and the energy of the team,” said Simeone afterwards.
At the full-time whistle, he shook his fists and sprinted down the tunnel, his relief evident at the end of a game that could easily have seen more points dropped for his side.
Luis Suarez had scored in six of the previous seven games but for once the 34-year-old was not the matchwinner, with Llorente and Correa — two unsung heroes this season — instead proving the difference.
Llorente’s goal was his seventh of the season while his lay-off for Correa was his sixth assist.
“As coaches trophies are wonderful because they fill you with excitement and glory,” Simeone said of Llorente. “But when you work with a footballer and see them grow, you feel even more joy and more enthusiasm to keep doing what you’re doing.”