Barcelona may be 11 points clear atop the LaLiga table but head coach Ernesto Valverde insisted defending champions and bitter rivals Real Madrid are still in the title race.
Barca defeated bottom side Malaga 2-0 Saturday to move 11 points ahead of second-placed Atletico Madrid, who are scheduled to play Celta Vigo Sunday.
Titleholders Madrid stayed within 15 points of Barca following their hard-fought 2-1 win at Eibar thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s brace.
Madrid only have eight games to overturn Barca’s mammoth lead, however, Valverde refused to count Zinedine Zidane’s men out.
“Of course there’s a title race,” Valverde told reporters after Barca preserved their unbeaten record. “While it’s still mathematically possible, you can’t rule anyone out.
“I won’t rule [Madrid] out and they will do well not to rule themselves out, too.”
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 11, 2018
Lionel Messi missed the trip to Malaga following the birth of his third child but Barca had no issues, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho seeing off the 10-man hosts.
It was a comfortable outing for Barca, though Valverde accepted his team’s minds were elsewhere ahead of next week’s Champions League return leg against Chelsea.
The last-16 tie is evenly posted at 1-1 following the Stamford Bridge fixture.
“In the second half we began to subconsciously think about the match on Wednesday,” said Valverde, who allayed injury concerns over full-backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba after the pair picked up knocks in the victory.
“Scoring early here was crucial, the red card made the match easier for us. We will have to suffer to progress past Chelsea.”
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 10, 2018
Valverde also praised Ousmane Dembele following his performance, which also drew plaudits from team-mate Coutinho.
Dembele, whose first season in Spain has been ruined by injury, was the provider for Coutinho’s goal approaching the half-hour mark after Suarez opened the scoring 13 minutes earlier.
“Dembele’s a player that needs time, he’s young,” Valverde added. “We’re Barca and there’s a lot of pressure here, so for that reason there’s been a lot of focus on him.
“He’s had more success [against Malaga] than on other occasions but the good thing is that he always tries to get at opponents and to dribble. And he can also create, as we saw with the second goal. He took a step forward tonight and he helped us a lot. But there’s still a way to go.”
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