April 14, 2018 / 7:01 PM / 5 days ago

Soccer-Barca move closer to title, Sevilla draw thriller

BARCELONA, April 14 (Reuters) - Barcelona responded to the shock of being eliminated from the Champions League by AS Roma by beating Valencia 2-1 on Saturday at the Nou Camp, setting a Liga record run of 39 games unbeaten and taking them ever closer to another title.

Luis Suarez gave Barca the lead after 15 minutes, meeting a delicious outside-of-the-foot pass from former Liverpool team mate Philippe Coutinho and scoring with one touch from close range.

Club-record signing Coutinho then delivered an outswinging corner from which Samuel Umtiti headed in Barca’s second in the 51st minute, shortly after Gerard Pique had saved Umtiti’s blushes by clearing a shot from Valencia forward Santi Mina off the line following a slip by the France defender.

Captain Dani Parejo pulled back a goal for third-placed Valencia by squeezing an 87th-minute penalty under Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but the Catalans withstood an exciting final spell to move to within seven points of their 25th league title.

Ernesto Valverde’s side lead nearest challengers Atletico Madrid by 14 points in the standings, with Atletico hosting Levante and fourth-placed Real visiting basement club Malaga on Sunday.

The Barca coach praised his players for putting the Roma defeat behind them but said their European exit had punctured their enthusiasm for the unbeaten record.

“This wasn’t a week to think about records, we don’t give it too much importance. It was more important that we picked ourselves up after a difficult week,” Valverde told a news conference.

“It’s normal that these players keep on breaking records. But it was a fundamental win in many ways. First of all, I am happy with the three points. We needed 10 points to win league, now it’s seven.”

With heavy rain falling in the city all day, 30,000 seats at the 99,000-capacity Nou Camp were unoccupied and even when Suarez provided a slick finishing touch to Coutinho’s wonderful pass, celebrations were muted.

Valencia had made a good start and winger Goncalo Guedes hammered an early shot at Ter Stegen, who made another impressive save to thwart the Portuguese later in the half after Gerard Pique had surrendered the ball.

The German goalkeeper ran himself into trouble as he sent a pass straight at the feet of Valencia forward Rodrigo but redeemed himself by tipping the shot on to the crossbar and behind.

GLOOMY ATMOSPHERE

Lionel Messi was inactive for much of the first half but grew into the game in the second, narrowly volleying over the bar and fizzing a shot just wide after tearing through the Valencia defence.

“The atmosphere around the club this week has been a bit gloomy and we needed to put the brakes on that so I have to congratulate the players because it’s not been easy,” added Valverde.

“The sensation is that we have failed, that we have disappointed the supporters but we have to look forward and not lose sight of what we can still achieve this season.”

Villarreal and Sevilla missed the chance to put pressure on fifth-placed Real Betis as they drew a thrilling game 2-2 at a sun-drenched Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, which saw a player from each side sent off and a missed penalty.

Sevilla had exited the Champions League in midweek to Bayern Munich and things got worse as Dani Raba and Carlos Bacca scored either side of the interval for Villarreal and Wissan Ben Yedder was sent off.

Jaume Costa was later dismissed for the visitors after conceding a penalty which Nolito squandered but the forward scored two minutes later and Steven Nzonzi buried an equaliser from long range in the 82nd.

Villarreal are sixth on 48 points, Sevilla are seventh on 47, with Betis fifth on 52 after winning 1-0 at Girona on Friday. (Reporting by Richard Martin)

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