BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Arturo Vidal scored for Barcelona to sneak past feisty Valladolid 1-0 yesterday and keep the pressure on leader Real Madrid as the Spanish league approaches its climax.
Barcelona closed to within one point of Madrid, which has a game in hand, as it tries to defend a title it has won for two consecutive years.
Vidal scored in the 15th minute after being set up by Lionel Messi, who, like most of his teammates, had a discreet outing at Valladolid’s empty José Zorilla Stadium.
Madrid plays at Granada tomorrow. Its final two matches are against a Villarreal fighting for a Champions League berth and a Leganés fighting to avoid relegation. Barcelona has games against Osasuna and Alavés. Madrid holds the tiebreaker if they finish level on points. “We will give it our all, and then wait and see,” Vidal said. “It doesn’t depend on us. If it is not meant to be, then on to the Champions League.”
In a surprise move, Barcelona coach Quique Setién dropped striker Luis Suárez from his starting line-up for the first time in seven matches. Instead, he played with four midfielders and charged playmaker Riqui Puig with linking with Messi and Antoine Griezmann.
Barcelona dominated from kickoff and attacked at will down the right side through Nelson Semedo. Valladolid’s Jordi Masip denied Puig after he was set up by Semedo in Barcelona’s first dangerous attack, but the former Barcelona goalkeeper was beaten by Vidal after another long build-up by the visitors.
Semedo, Puig, and Messi all exchanged quick passes in a tight area before Messi slipped the ball to Vidal inside the box. The Chile midfielder used one touch to line up a powerful shot that he blasted from a tight angle in off the far post.
Kike Pérez had Valladolid’s only scoring chance in the first half on a rare counterattack. But he stumbled when trying to shoot and Marc-Andre ter Stegen smothered the ball.
Griezmann seemed to play well enough to reclaim his spot in the starting 11 in the last two matches after an idle period when Setién didn’t use him. But the French world champion had a difficult night at Valladolid. He was unable to link with Messi on a promising counterattack early on, and he wasted a golden chance to double the lead before halftime when he scuffed a pass from Semedo right in front of the goal.
Setién sat Griezmann at halftime due to an unspecified physical problem and sent on Suárez. After 10 minutes of seeing Valladolid beginning to mount attacks, Setién replaced Puig and Clement Lenglet, who had a yellow card, with Ivan Rakitic and reserve team defender Ronald Araújo. Valladolid, however, continued to press for the equaliser and Ter Stegen dove to parry a header by Enes Unal in the 60th.
Valladolid, which is partly owned by Brazil great Ronaldo, spends less than five per cent of what Barcelona spends on its star-studded squad. Still, it reached the second half with stronger legs and succeeded in pressing Barcelona into its area.
Setién acknowledged his team is reaching the end of this sprint-finish to La Liga, with matches every three days, on fumes.
“It was very hot and the pitch was very dry and several players didn’t have the energy to do much more than run enough to keep up with the play,” Setién said. Other than his assist for Vidal, Messi was limited to a pair of shots, including a free kick that Masip palmed over his bar.
Valladolid was left in 14th place at a safe distance from the relegation battle.
A late goal by Diego Costa ensured 10-man Atlético Madrid clinched a Champions League berth after edging Real Betis 1-0.
Costa used his chest to knock in a free kick in the 74th after his team lost Mario Hermoso to a direct red card for a hard tackle from behind of a Betis player.
Celta Vigo stayed in danger of falling into the relegation zone after losing at Osasuna 2-1. Osasuna’s José Arnaiz headed in the winner in stoppage time.