Messi shines as Barca’s title hopes fade
Little maestro racks up his record 20th assist for the season
Madrid — Lionel Messi made it 20 assists for the season in Barcelona’s stodgy 1-0 win over Real Valladolid on Saturday, even as his team’s La Liga challenge appears almost over.
Messi teed up Arturo Vidal’s winner at Jose Zorilla to become the first player to provide 20 assists in Spain’s top flight since Xavi Hernández in 2009.
Victory for Barca means Real Madrid cannot clinch the title on Monday by beating Granada but only an incredible collapse will prevent them putting their name on the trophy later in the week.
If they beat Granada, Madrid will win La Liga by prevailing at home to Villarreal on Thursday, regardless of Barcelona’s results.
Overall, Madrid need only five points from their remaining three matches to secure their third La Liga title in eight years.
“We are doing things that deserve more than where we are,” said Barca coach Quique Setien. “To win La Liga, I don’t know, because our rival is winning everything.”
Yet even as Barca’s turbulent domestic campaign draws to a close, Messi continues to shine. His delightful pass for Vidal in the 15th minute, a scoop between two Valladolid defenders, triggered more remarkable milestones.
As well as matching the best La Liga total for assists by one player in the last 11 years, Messi extended his own career-best number of assists in a single league season. He also becomes only the second player in the 21st century from the five big European leagues to hit 20 goals and 20 assists in the same campaign, after Thierry Henry in 2002/2003.
Messi has halted negotiations to extend his contract, which expires in 2021, perhaps to express frustration with the running of the club.
As Barcelona’s title challenge has wilted, Setien’s position has come under scrutiny too, despite him only taking over in January. But he was bold against Valladolid, deploying a 3-5-2 formation, with Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba as wingbacks and the versatile Sergi Roberto dropping into the back three.
Luis Suarez started on the bench but replaced Antoine Griezmann at halftime, the Frenchman enduring one of his quieter displays before having to go off injured.
“He came off because he had a problem,” Setien said. “It was him who asked for the change.”
After playing Messi behind Suarez and Griezmann against Villarreal on Sunday, Setien appears to be experimenting, perhaps with an eye on the Champions League’s resumption in August. Or he may be making the best of a stretched squad that appears to be feeling fatigue.
Third-placed Atletico Madrid made sure of their place in the Champions League next season with a 1-0 win over Real Betis despite playing more than half an hour with 10 men. Diego Costa grabbed the only goal from a Yannick Carrasco free-kick in the 73rd minute after VAR had earlier ruled out two goals.
Atletico fullback Mario Hermoso had been red-carded in the 57th minute.
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