Football Features

Five things learned as Suarez puts Barcelona on the brink of back-to-back titles

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:50, 23 April 2019

Barcelona beat Alaves 2-0 to move to within three points of the La Liga title.

Carles Alena gave Barcelona the lead 10 minutes into the second half and Luis Suarez doubled it moments later from the penalty spot in what was a tough game for the league leaders.

But what did we learn?

1. Barcelona are on the brink

Barcelona were made to work for it after a frustrating first half at Mendizorroza but Ernesto Valverde’s men are just one win away from the title.

The Blaugrana’s 2-0 win over Alaves saw them move 12 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid who have five games remaining, and face Valencia on Wednesday evening.

Like other big leagues across Europe, La Liga tie breakers are sorted by head-to-head results before goal difference, meaning Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid at the start of the month has piled even more pressure on their title rivals.

Atletico Madrid must now avoid defeat Valencia on Wednesday to stay nine points behind and keep the title race going until Saturday, when Barcelona will have another chance to win the title against Levante. Should the Blaugrana beat Levante, it will be impossible for Atletico Madrid to overtake them with the amount of games remaining.

2. Luis Suarez leads in Messi’s stead

It has been said for some time that Barcelona cannot function properly without Lionel Messi but against Alaves, Ernesto Valverde’s men showed they aren’t completely useless.

Having played his part in the wins over Manchester United and Real Sociedad over the past seven days, Messi was well deserving of his rest from the start. But it looked as though he would be required to come on after half-time.

In the first half Barcelona had a whopping 80% possession and mustered 10 shots on goal from that – compared to their opponents’ solitary effort. But the La Liga leaders barely troubled Fernando Pacheco in the Alaves goal as only three of their 10 shots hit the target.

The wide players in Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho tried to break down the five-man defence but just couldn’t, often over-playing in frustration with the lack of space.

But something did click for Barcelona as Lionel Messi was contemplating coming on, with Luis Suarez showing he can still run the show for the Blaugrana and lead them to the La Liga title.

Though Sergi Roberto got the assist for Carles Alena’s opening goal, Suarez’s reading of the game and knowledge of his team-mates brought a beautiful dummy on the edge of the area, allowing the goalscorer to take his opportunity.

Then, Suarez continued to drive forward and won a free-kick on the edge of the area, from which Barcelona won a penalty. With Messi off the pitch, the Uruguayan was the one to step up and put Barcelona in firm control.

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3. Alaves’ Europa League hopes get slimmer

Believe it or not, after nine games this season Alaves lead La Liga and though nobody expected them to stay that way, Abelardo’s mean were down as a potential dark horse for the Champions League places.

But now, Alaves are fighting to keep their Europa League hopes alive, drifting down to eighth in the table with four games remaining.

In addition to getting four teams in the Champions League, La Liga get two spots in the Europa League with the fifth and sixth-placed teams joining the secondary competition.

A third spot is reserved for the Copa del Rey victors but, like in England, if the cup winners have already guaranteed a spot in Europe via other means, seventh gets the lowest Europa League spot for Spain.

With this season’s Copa del Rey final being contested by Barcelona and Valencia, two teams likely to be in Europe through the league, the seventh-placed team is almost guaranteed a Europa League spot.

Had Alaves produced an upset on Tuesday, they would have taken firm control of the position. But now they sit level on points with Athletic Bilbao who have played a game fewer and boast a superior goal difference.

4. Coutinho’s struggles continue

Though Philippe Coutinho did not have a disaster of a game against Alaves, the Brazilian did produce another performance which sums up his struggles in Barcelona.

Brought in for £142m last January from Liverpool, Coutinho has had a lot of trouble in living up to his hefty price tag with various poor games.

In the first half against Alaves, Coutinho was perhaps guilty of trying too hard to make his mark, unable to break down a stern defence.

The Brazilian had a few good opportunities to make a name for himself with Messi watching on from the sideline, but either over-thought his options or saw a shot closed down.

And though this was representative of Barcelona as a unit in the first half, when his team-mates picked themselves up after half-time, Coutinho continued to look lost.

Overall, the Brazilian had more touches of the ball than his attacking partners and attempted the joint-most shots of any player with five. But of his five shots only one hit the target, with a further three being blocked.

It just wasn’t his night, as it hasn’t been his season.

5. VAR is wonderful

VAR has its doubters and critics, but Barcelona’s win over Alaves serves as proof for just how brilliant it can be.

After taking the lead through Alena, Barcelona were pushing for a second and had the opportunity from a free-kick out wide.

Ousmane Dembele sent the ball into the box and it was eventually bundled in by either Gerard Pique or Samuel Umtiti, who both had a swing at the ball near the goal line.

The assistant raised his flag, however, and VAR took control. Had Pique got the final touch, the goal would have counted as the Spaniard’s initial effort was blocked – whereas Umtiti had been standing offside at the time of Pique’s first shot.

And though the replays appeared fairly inconclusive about who got the final touch, they did spot an Alaves handball in the build up to the incident.

After a quick consultation with the pitch-side screen, the referee pointed to the spot and Suarez converted the penalty.

It may have taken slightly longer than some would hope, but the right decision was made – something which needs to be important as football develops.

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