Ousmane Dembele on Sunday gave Barcelona a glimpse of the future, but they still needed Lionel Messi to beat CD Leganes 3-1 and restore their five-point lead at the top of La Liga.
Messi had started on the bench, rested by coach Ernesto Valverde, and for just over an hour at the Camp Nou Dembele filled the void by scoring the opening goal in a sparkling individual display.
However, the 21-year-old limped off with a sprained ankle in the 69th minute, shortly after Leganes had equalized through Martin Braithwaite and Valverde responded by introducing Messi.
He needed just seven minutes to make an impact as his bending shot was followed up by Luis Suarez, who poked the ball in ahead of Leganes goalkeeper Pichu Cuellar.
Messi then rounded off the win by scoring himself in stoppage-time.
Leganes had protested against Suarez’s finish, convinced that goalkeeper Cuellar had been fouled by a high foot.
“It was a clear foul,” Leganes coach Mauricio Pellegrino said. “Barca don’t need these kind of decisions to help them.”
However, the video assistant referee disagreed and Barca advanced to what was, in truth, a fully deserved victory.
It means they regain their hefty advantage over Atletico Madrid at the top of the table, with the difference ahead of Real Madrid also back to 10 points.
Leganes had beaten Barcelona at home in September last year, but that remains the high point of their season. They stay 14th.
Valverde was accused of failing to rest key players last season, to the detriment of their progress in the UEFA Champions League, and his gamble to spare his star player just about paid off.
“There are lots of games,” Valverde said. “We talk to the players and decide when it may be good for them to rest.”
“It was difficult with and without Messi,” Pellegrino said.
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