A victory to believe in the league (1-0)
A last-minute goal from Dembélé allows Barça to beat Valladolid in a controversial game and move closer to the lead
BarcelonaTo win titles you have to be able to suffer. You also have to know how to win games when things don't work out, when it seems like you lack purpose, energy and spirit. That euphoric Barça that ate up rivals not so many days ago got back to work after a break for players to join their national teams. The timing was not good, as Barça was closing the gap with Atlético. However, instead of playing like angels, Koeman's side choked against a Valladolid side that held out until the final minute when Dembélé, previously erratic and aimless, scored the goal that put Koeman's side to within a single point of the lead (1-0).
After seeing Atlético drop points at Sevilla, Barça fell into the trap of thinking it would be all plain sailing against a Valladolid side with nine players missing. While Koeman's team could not find a way to score by playing well, it did so playing with heart, refusing to accept a draw that would have done much damage. That's how leagues are won. Everyone will remember Dembélé's goal and no one will remember the bad game the whole team had before. Or that Dembélé himself was shooting wide all the time. Memory is rotten like that.
Football, in fact, always reminds sportspeople that if you want to win titles you have to bite the bullet. Between the perfidious refereeing of Jaime Latre, that turned the law of the advantage into an excuse to ignore infractions, and Sergio González's magnificent Valladolid, Barça suffered indigestion, especially in the first part. The blaugranes, with some players who have played a few minutes with their national teams such as Pedri, were tired. They met a team that was often more level-headed. In fact, a large part of supporters weren't really even thinking of this match against a team in the lower half of the table; they already had Saturday's match against Real Madrid on their minds.
Despite knowing that, in case of being shown a yellow card, both Messi and De Jong would have missed el clásico against Real Madrid, Koeman played his A-Team. This team, with Frenkie de Jong in the centre of the defence and full of joy in attack, is getting a little closer to Atlético Madrid every week. But the same men who had made the triumph a routine had become a nervous wreck by halftime. Angry with Jaime Latre, their game lacking purpose and an offensive spark and suffering too much every time the Valladolid came out running towards Ter Stegen's goal, who saw how the Castilians could have scored in a first half that caught out most Barça supporters, who expected an easy victory. The duel against Valladolid was meant to be a mere formality, an hors d'oeuvre before el clásico. And, instead, it was necessary to grind it out.
Broken in defensive phase, Barça suffered every time Messi, angry, had to bite his tongue when infractions repeatedly went unsignalled by the referee. More than once the Argentine rolled on the ground and got up with that angry look wishing to complain to the referee but thought twice, not wanting to miss the match against Real Madrid. "He wants to give me the card," the Argentine told delegate Carles Naval at halftime, when Koeman changed the tactical drawing. Instead of three central defenders, only two, and put De Jong in midfield to make it his own. It was necessary to play strong, of course. To tie was to discourage the team just now that it could once again see the light. And with the Dutchman playing 15 metres further forward, they improved in attack. But, without him in defence, Valladolid also did more damage on the counter and turned the game into a Russian roulette in which the visiting team protested an Alba handball inside the box. Barça played with fire. And Koeman was brave and made a triple change in the 60th minute: he brought on Trincão, Araujo and Braithwaite for Griezmann, Mingueza and Busquets, to tidy up the team.
Dembélé, the saviour
The changes took effect and locked up a Valladolid who already forgot to attack and defended as best as they could from the attacks of a wounded Barça, aware that they had to win the game however they could. In the end, the hero of the match was Dembélé, who had shot at the Barcelona sky until then, without aiming, but had also forced Plano's red card that angered Valladolid, who until then had managed to fend Barça off. But when De Jong's play found him alone at the far post, the Frenchman shook off the fears of missed chances in Paris and scored the goal that allows the team to arrive at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium in Valdebebas ahead of Real Madrid on Saturday. And only one point behind an Atletico that has seen its lead cut down. La Liga is more alive than ever, in the hands of a Barça that has risen from its ashes, without ceasing to believe. Also on the days that it does not play well.