BARCELONA (AFP) – Ousmane Dembele gave Barcelona a glimpse into the future but Barcelona still needed Lionel Messi to beat Leganes 3-1 on Sunday night and restore their five-point lead at the top of La Liga.
Messi had started on the bench, rested by coach Ernesto Valverde, and for just over an hour at the Camp Nou, Dembele filled the void by scoring the opening goal in a sparkling individual display.
The 21-year-old, however, limped off with a sprained ankle in the 69th minute, shortly after Leganes had equalised through Martin Braithwaite and Valverde responded by introducing Messi.
He needed only seven minutes to make an impact as his bending shot was followed up by Luis Suarez, who poked the ball in ahead of Leganes goalkeeper Pichu Cuellar. Messi then rounded off the win by scoring himself in injury-time.
Leganes had protested against Suarez’s finish, convinced that Pichu had been fouled by a high foot.
“It was a clear foul,” coach Mauricio Pellegrino said. “Barca don’t need these kind of decisions to help them.”
But VAR disagreed and Barca advanced to what was, in truth, a fully deserved victory. It means they regain their hefty advantage over Atletico Madrid at the top of the table, with the difference ahead of Real Madrid also back to 10 points.
Valverde was accused of failing to rest key players last term, to the detriment of their progress in the Champions League, and his gamble to spare his star player just about paid off.
“There are lots of games,” Valverde said. “We talk to the players and decide when it may be good for them to rest.”
“It was difficult with and without Messi,” Pellegrino said.
Barcelona needed him in the end but for a while, Dembele, and the 21-year-old Carles Alena in midfield, had shown there may yet be life after Messi, who turns 32 in June.
“We will miss him a lot,” Valverde said. “We hope it is not too long.”