Uninspiring Barcelona edge closer to Liga title but questions remain as Liverpool loom

The Liga leaders weren’t at their best in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Real Sociedad but they still managed to restore their nine-point lead over Atletico

One down, two to go.

After breaking their Champions League quarter-final hoodoo in midweek, Barcelona’s next target was wrapping up La Liga so that they could focus solely on their mouth-watering last-four tie against Liverpool.

With Atletico Madrid having reduced the Catalans lead at the top of the Primera Division to six points with a 1-0 win at Eibar on Saturday afternoon, that meant winning three games in three days: against Real Sociedad, Alaves and Levante.

Step one has now been completed, but it was far from easy.

Mid-table Sociedad may have had little to fight for but that allowed them to play with great freedom and they arguably deserved at least a point from their trip to Camp Nou.

They certainly should have opened the scoring but after Marc-Andre ter Stegen had saved well from Juanmi, Willian Jose inexplicably blazed the rebound over the bar.

The visitors’ profligacy was punished right on half-time, with Clement Lenglet meeting Ousmane Dembele’s corner with a towering header.

Even the defender seemed surprised by the quality of his connection and he barely celebrated what was a crucial goal.

Indeed, Barca had performed poorly during the opening 45 minutes. Even the great Lionel Messi looked sluggish after his midweek heroics against Manchester United.

Dembele, selected to start ahead of Philippe Coutinho on the left wing, should have injected some pace and liveliness into the hosts’ attack but although he produced a set-piece delivery for Lenglet’s goal, he struggled to impose himself in open play.

Barca could do with the Frenchman fit and firing on all cylinders by the time Liverpool arrive in Catalunya, given the Reds’ full-backs are such a key part of their game plan. An in-form Dembele would certainly make Trent Alexander-Arnold think twice about every potential foray forward.

Liverpool certainly would have taken encouragement from the problems Sociedad caused Barca at the back, and particularly the way in which Mikel Merino completely opened up their defence with a slide-rule pass that Juanmi slipped past Ter Stegen to deservedly draw the Basque side level after a bright start to the second half.

However, Barca hit back almost immediately, with their goal coming from a familiar source: the Messi-Jordi Alba combination.

The only surprise was that Jordi Alba was the scorer. It was a strike of which Messi would have been proud.

After being picked out on the left-hand side of the box by his captain, the world’s best full-back cut inside and arrowed a right-footed strike into the bottom corner.

The Video Assistant Referee was consulted to assess whether Dembele, who was standing in an offside position, had restricted Geronimo Rulli’s view but Jordi Alba was not to be denied his winner.

And, though it was not pretty, Barca were not to be denied their victory.

One down, two to go.

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