FC Barcelona kept their slim title hopes alive after a brace from Lionel Messi and one from Jordi Alba gave them a 3-0 win at home to Elche, which leaves them five points behind La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid.
Barca coach Ronald Koeman said in his pre-game press conference that this game and Saturday’s trip to Sevilla were vital for his side’s title chances, and he made changes to try and keep his squad fresh, Xinhua news reports.
Samuel Umtiti, Francisco Trincao, Oscar Mingueza, Martin Braithwaite and Miralem Pjanic all started, with Clement Lenglet, Sergino Dest, Antoine Griezmann, Sergio Busquets and Ousmane Dembele dropping to the bench.
The game started brightly and Elche, buoyed by their first win in almost four months at the weekend, had the first chance when Lucas Boye fired over when he had the goal at his mercy.
Barca looked to hit back and Elche keeper Edgar Badia produced a reflex stop to deny Trincao, who had dribbled past two defenders in a move started by Frenkie de Jong.
Trincao had another effort on target after a pass from Braithwaite and again looked lively for Barca in a disjointed first 45 minutes.
Messi opened the scoring only two minutes into the second half, collecting a backheel from Braithwaite before angling in a shot that Badia got a touch on, but couldn’t keep out of the net.
Barca kept up the pressure and looked for a second goal to avoid a repeat of their 1-1 draw at home to Cadiz on Sunday, and they found it in the 68th minute, when De Jong broke through deep into the Elche area before ceding the ball to Messi, who made it look easy as he beat two defenders before lifting the ball into the net.
Five minutes later, Braithwaite got his second assist of the game when he nodded Messi’s cross down for Jordi Alba to score Barca’s third to round off a satisfactory night for Koeman.