Three days after exiting the Europa League, Barcelona had a rare setback in the Spanish league after losing at Almeria 1-0
Almeria's Brazilian defender Rodrigo Ely (L) and Almeria's Serbian defender Srdjan Babic celebrate.Pic/AFP
Three days after exiting the Europa League, Barcelona had a rare setback in the Spanish league after losing at Almeria 1-0.
Barcelona headed to southern Spain after second-place Real Madrid was held 1-1 by Atletico Madrid on Saturday and had the chance to add to its seven-point lead at the top over its fierce rival. Instead, Barcelona flopped to its first-ever loss to Almeria in their 16th meeting.
The leaders were unable to mount a credible fightback despite having ample time to respond to striker El Bilal Touré's goal in the 24th minute.
For Barcelona coach Xavi Hernández, his team's "worst game of the season" came just when it could have dealt a serious blow to Madrid's bid to defend its Spanish title.
"It was a difficult game and a tough day for us," Xavi said. "We are still leaders at seven points ahead, but we did not play like we should have. It was our worst game of the season. I think we had some fatigue, that is why we rotated our starting lineup, but we missed a golden chance to go up 10 points."
Barcelona hadn't lost in 13 league games, with only one draw and 12 wins going back to its last defeat at Madrid in October.
The unexpected defeat on Sunday came after a 2-1 loss at Manchester United eliminated Barcelona from the Europa League after it had failed to advance from the Champions League group phase for a second consecutive year. The exit from Europe's second-tier competition left Barcelona with the Spanish league and domestic cup titles to play for as it tries to make good on its investment in new players last summer using cash it generated from the sale of future television revenues and other assets.
Barcelona will now have to regroup for Thursday's visit to Real Madrid in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey.
Almeria moved out of the relegation zone after earning one of its biggest wins.
Almeria coach Rubi Ferrer credited his players for "working, working, working" and restricting Barcelona's movement.
"We did an extraordinary job," Rubi said about his team that withstood a final bombardment of crosses by Barcelona. Goalkeeper Fernando Martínez had surprisingly little work to do.
"Our game plan worked to perfection," Rubi said. ¨We are going to remember this game for a long time.
Nestled between trips to United and Madrid, the game at a modest Almeria side that was promoted this season seemed like a good opportunity for Xavi to rest some of his first-choice players.
Defenders Jules Koundé, Ronald Araújo and Alejando Balde and forward Raphinha began the game on the bench. Sergi Roberto, Éric García, Jordi Alba and Ferrán Torres started in their place.
Barcelona still had Robert Lewandowski, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong on the field from kickoff along with Gavi, back from a one-game suspension that meant he missed the game at Old Trafford.
The result, however, was a third-rate performance.
After a complacent start by Barcelona, Almeria struck on a quick attack after an inspired Rodrigo Ely tackled Gavi in the hosts' area and booted a long ball forward for Touré to control. The 21-year-old Mali forward exchanged quick passes with Luis Suárez and blasted a powerful strike over Marc-Andre ter Stegen and in off the crossbar.
Almeria pressed the initiative and almost got a quick second goal when Leo Baptistao hit the post in the 27th.
Xavi sent Raphinha on at halftime, with Araújo and Marcos Alonso soon following, but his team did not play much better as Almeria held firm in defense.
Gavi's shot blocked by Ely in the 59th and a shot by substitute Pablo Torre in the 82nd easily grabbed by Fernando ended up being the most that a disappointing Barcelona could muster.
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