BARCELONA: Barcelona forward Luis Suarez said his side had taken two steps towards wrapping up the La Liga title after beating closest challengers Atletico Madrid 2-0 at home on Saturday to open up an 11-point gap at the top of the table with seven games left.
Barca had struggled to break down a fiercely competitive Atletico long after Diego Costa had been sent off for the visitors for a verbal outburst at the referee but Suarez finally beat Atleti’s outstanding keeper Jan Oblak in the 85th minute.
Griezmann heads to Barcelona wondering what might have been
Captain Lionel Messi scored the second goal one minute later and the 90,000 Barca fans crammed into the Nou Camp began to chant “champions” as they sensed they were closing in on an eighth domestic title in 11 years.
“Today we didn’t just take one step, we took two steps forward, we obviously have a very big advantage now but there are still some games to go and it could still get difficult,” Suarez told reporters.
“This was another game which shows just how hard it is to win the league and we deserve a lot of credit for what we’re achieving.”
Defeat by Atletico would have trimmed Barca’s lead to five points and coach Ernesto Valverde underlined the importance of the victory.
“These three points were very important, we still have to finish the job but today’s game was fundamental and could mean a lot,” Valverde said.
Messi magic keeps Barcelona 10 points clear
“We’re very happy because we know exactly what Atletico are, an enormous team who scrapped until the end with 10 men. We were giving everything and Luis’ goal was like a shot of adrenaline.”
Having taken a huge step towards the title, Barca can now focus on their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester United on Wednesday and Valverde said he would have to rotate his squad.
“We have a lot of games coming thick and fast and we’ll have to call on the entire squad, that’s a reality,” Valverde added.
“But our idea is to compete on all fronts because we still haven’t won anything.”
Zidane vague on Bale's future after scrappy win over Eibar
Zinedine Zidane refused to guarantee Gareth Bale's future at Real Madrid after the Welshman struggled again in a 2-1 victory over Eibar on Saturday.
Karim Benzema scored twice at the Santiago Bernabeu as Madrid came from behind after Marc Cardona, starting only after an injury to Pedro Leon in the warm-up, gave Eibar a surprise lead.
But Madrid improved and a pair of Benzema headers ensured the groans and whistles that had soured the atmosphere for much of the opening hour turned to cheers and applause at the end.
Much of the frustration was again directed at Bale, who started here after being dropped by Zidane for the defeat to Valencia on Wednesday.
Asked afterwards if Bale would be at Real Madrid next season, Zidane said: "We'll see, I'm not going to tell you what's going to happen. Gareth is a Real Madrid player, he has two years left on his contract. We will see. It is not the time to talk about this."
Bale's below-par performances and a lack of support from either coach or fans seem so inter-linked now, it is difficult to know what comes first. He departed again to whistles with 14 minutes left, a conciliatory hand slap from Zidane offering little consolation as he trudged off.
Benzema's trajectory has been the opposite, the Frenchman now with six goals in five La Liga games, four of them since Zidane took over.
"Karim has had a great season," Zidane said. "His goals have perhaps changed people's perception of him. But he has never changed as a player."
Madrid's win means they are 10 points adrift of leaders Barcelona and two behind Atletico Madrid. Barca and Atletico play each other later on Saturday. Eibar stay 11th.
Zidane has insisted his players are not on trial but his changing line-ups at least suggest he is examining his options before the summer.
This time Sergio Ramos was rested, while Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Lucas Vazquez also dropped out. In came Nacho, Federico Valverde, Isco and Bale.
Bale's half began badly as he failed to control Valverde's overhit pass and then got worse as he missed a one-on-one when his finish was saved by Marko Dmitrovic.
The scattering of whistles became a chorus after he dragged a shot wide from 25 yards and it was no surprise his confidence drained away, a poor touch following shortly after.
Bale was not the only one. Madrid lacked precision or purpose, as opponents were allowed through unchecked and passes went astray.
In the 39th minute, as the fans' frustration was reaching its peak, Eibar scored, a crisp move down the left ending with a cute pass from Gonzalo Escalante to Cardona, who chipped into the net.
The second half started better for Madrid, with Benzema scoring only to be called back for offside before the Frenchman headed in the equaliser just before the hour. Marco Asensio did brilliantly to weave into space and dig out the cross.
Bale might have been in but Asensio's pass struck the back of his heel and the Welshman departed with 14 minutes left, to disgruntled whistles.
Madrid scored the winner without him. Kroos' whipped cross was again met by the forehead of Benzema and, again, the ball found the net.
Benzema should have completed his hat-trick late on but one finish was palmed away by Dmitrovic and another, with the goal gaping, looped over. He even hit the post with a bending effort in injury-time. The treble was not to be.