BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — A trip to Almeria offered a perfect chance for Barcelona to deal a major blow to Real Madrid’s Spanish title defense and move past its still-stinging elimination from the Europa League.
But with Xavi Hernández feeling compelled to rest some of his best players, Barcelona put in what its coach admitted was the “worst game of the season.”
The 1-0 shock loss at Almeria let second-place Madrid, which drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid the day before, stay seven points behind Barcelona.
Barcelona was unable to mount a credible fightback despite having more than an hour to respond to striker El Bilal Touré’s goal and flopped to the first-ever loss to Almeria in their 16th meeting.
“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.
Barcelona will now have to regroup for Thursday’s visit to Madrid in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey.
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.
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 time 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 in the 24th minute 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.
Xavi sent Raphinha on at halftime, with Araújo and Marcos Alonso soon following, but Almeria held firm.
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.
The stumble at Almeria came amid Barcelona facing intense scrutiny after it became known that Spanish state prosecutors are probing the payment of millions of euros to a company that belonged to the vice president of Spain’s refereeing committee. Barcelona says the money was for technical reports on referees and youth players, and denies any attempt to influence referees.
Girona was helped by two own-goals to win 3-2 at Athletic Bilbao after both Óscar de Marcos and Mikel Vesga sent the ball into their net.
Midfielder Aleix García rifled in a fourth-minute opener for Girona and two of his crosses ended up being put in the hosts’ goal by De Marcos and Vesga.
Celta Vigo’s 20-year-old Gabri Veiga scored twice in a 3-0 win at home over Valladolid.
With eight goals from his position in midfield, Veiga has emerged as one of the Spanish league’s revelations.
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