Barcelona’s bid for a fifth La Liga title in six years suffered a surprise setback when they slumped to a 1-0 defeat at lowly Real Valladolid on Saturday to open the door for Real Madrid to pull away at the top.
It was one of Barca’s worst performances this season, particularly in an atrocious first half when Juventus cast-off Fausto Rossi scored for the home side, raising serious doubts about the Catalan club’s form ahead of their Champions League last-16 second leg at home to Manchester City on Wednesday.
Real, who host Barca in a Liga “Clasico” on March 24, had the chance to stretch their lead over their archrivals to four points with a win over Levante UD yesterday.
After Saturday’s action, Barca slipped to third, while Atletico Madrid climbed into provisional first thanks to a 2-0 win at RC Celta de Vigo when former Barca forward David Villa struck twice in two minutes to improve his chances of representing Spain in this year’s FIFA World Cup.
Real and Atletico are both on 64 points, with the latter top due to a superior head-to-head record over their city rivals, while Barca are on 63. Saturday’s surprise triumph pulled Valladolid out of the relegation zone and into 17th.
Most of Barca’s players were in international action last week, and many looked short of inspiration in a lethargic display at Valladolid’s Estadio Jose Zorrilla marked by uncharacteristic sloppiness.
“We failed to create going forward, in our passing and in our mobility and that’s why we did not get the desired result,” coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference.
“Right now we are not on top form and we have to get there to be able to take on a team like Real Madrid. We have 15 days to do it,” added the Argentine, who is in his first term in charge after taking over from the ailing Tito Vilanova.
The first real chance of the match fell to Messi when he sprinted into space on the left in the 10th minute.
It was the kind of opening that the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year normally converts with minimum fuss, but his shot went straight to Diego Marino and the home ’keeper palmed it to safety.
Valladolid grabbed the lead seven minutes later when Rossi was first to a loose ball in Barca’s penalty area and the Italian, on loan from Serie A champions Juve, fired a first-time effort past Victor Valdes.
Messi and Fabregas again shot straight at Merino, with the Argentine missing another effort early in the second half before Neymar, who netted a hat-trick for Brazil against South Africa on Wednesday, fluffed Barca’s best chance of the game, prompting derisive whistles from the home fans.
Martino brought Alexis Sanchez on for Fabregas and later switched to what was effectively a two-man defense of Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets, but Valladolid held firm and came close to another goal on the breakaway late on.
Barca’s latest setback followed last month’s defeats at home to Valencia and at Real Sociedad and will give City hope they can overturn a 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou.
“We cannot draw any positive conclusions, we just have to try and improve before Wednesday,” Barca playmaker Xavi said.
Atletico drew 2-2 with Real at the Estadio Vicente Calderon last weekend and stayed in the hunt for a first title since 1996 with an efficient performance in Vigo.
Villa, playing in place of suspended top scorer Diego Costa, punished a defensive error in the 62nd minute and conjured another clinical finish in the 64th when he swept the ball low into the corner from the edge of the area.
Spain’s top scorer with 56 goals in 95 matches, Villa was left out of the world and European champions’ latest squad, but Saturday’s brace could help convince team manager Vicente del Bosque he deserves a place at the finals in Brazil.
In other Liga action on Saturday, fifth-placed Villarreal’s hopes of a return to the Champions League next season faded when they were beaten 2-0 at Granada, while bottom side Real Betis Balompie improved their slim chances of avoiding relegation when they won 2-0 at home to fellow strugglers Getafe.
Betis have 18 points to sit in 20th, five behind second-from-bottom Rayo Vallecano de Madrid, who play at Real Sociedad today.
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