Barcelona's title challenge remains red hot, but Victor Valdes' career in Catalonia has come to a premature end.
Neymar scored twice and Lionel Messi added his seventh goal in his last three games as Barcelona moved within a point of first place in La Liga with a 3-0 victory at home to Celta Vigo on Wednesday evening at the Camp Nou.
With their third straight league victory, Barcelona briefly moved atop the table with 72 points before Atletico Madrid took over top spot with a 1-0 victory at home to Granada. Real Madrid, who lost 2-1 at Sevilla, are now third with 70 points.
The win came at a high cost for Barca, as Valdes left the match with a knee injury in the 24th minute. Valdes, who is out of contract in the summer, has confirmed that he will not re-sign with Barcelona and will leave the club in the summer.
After the match, Barcelona confirmed via Twitter that Valdes had suffered a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament. According to B/R's Will Carroll, Valdes will miss six months of action, meaning the Spain international will miss the World Cup—and that his playing career with Barcelona is finished.
"It’s a very hard blow, but this team has lived blow-to-blow for a long time and we will move forward," manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino told FCBarcelona.com. "(At) this point in the season I thought that everything that was going to happen to us had already happened."
Messi's goal was his 22nd in the league this season, an impressive figure considering he missed 59 days with an injury late in 2013. According to Opta, his 14 goals in 2014 are the most of any player in Europe's top five leagues.
The Blaugrana came into their midweek match still riding the high of their 4-3 victory at rivals Real Madrid on Sunday in a classic El Clasico, a result that will have given Barca confidence heading into the stretch run as they chase silverware on multiple fronts.
And after Valdes' injury, they'll need it. Following a trip to city neighbours Espanyol in the league this weekend, Martino's side will host Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final on April 1 before heading to capital for the return leg eight days later.
The same two sides will meet at the Camp Nou on the final day of the league season in what could be a title-deciding match.
Meanwhile, Barca also face another showdown with Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final on April 16.
Barcelona started well against Celta, and Messi had the ball in the net in the fourth minute, finishing from Andres Iniesta's through pass. But the goal was ruled out in a tight offside decision.
Two minutes later Barcelona had the ball in the net again. This time the goal stood.
Iniesta started the move, passing to Messi on the right before Messi cut inside and fed Alexis Sanchez with a through pass. Sanchez burst toward the byline before cutting back into the middle for Neymar, who tapped in for a 1-0 lead in the sixth minute.
With a quick goal in hand, Barcelona looked far from satisfied.
The hosts had another good chance in the 10th minute when Sanchez freed Neymar with a cross-field pass as Barca broke forward. Neymar worked his way to the byline on the left and pulled back for Sanchez, but Celta cleared. Adriano then tried his luck three minutes later with a shot from long range on the right, but Yoel saved comfortably.
In the 15th minute, Messi laid off for Neymar in space in the box as Barca again broke forward quickly, but Neymar sent his shot into the side netting. One minute later, Yoel saved one-on-one from Messi after the Argentine had burst into the box with a dribble.
But for all their dominance, Barcelona were halted in their tracks by some potentially devastating news midway through the half.
There was only minimal danger as Celta's Fabian Orellana curled a free-kick at Valdes in the 21st minute, but after saving the shot, Valdes landed awkwardly on his right knee and quickly indicated that he needed to leave the match. After a delay, Valdes was carried off the pitch on a stretcher, replaced by Jose Manuel Pinto.
The injury seemed to affect Barcelona negatively for a short time afterward, but less than 10 minutes later, Messi doubled their lead. Iniesta served as the catalyst, threading a precise pass through Celta's defence for Messi to run onto in the box. After rounding Yoel with his first touch, Messi tucked home with his right foot to make it 2-0 in the 30th minute.
Still Barcelona poured forward and Neymar had another goal ruled out for offside in the 34th minute. Sanchez came close again in the 45th minute, but his long shot from the right flew just wide of the near post.
Leading 2-0 at half-time, Barcelona had Pinto to thank for preserving the lead with two fine stops in the 52nd minute. First, the Spaniard made a quick reaction save to deny Augusto Fernandez's close-range flick. Then he found his feet in time to keep out Santi Mina's drilled effort on the rebound.
Having kept Celta off the scoresheet, Barcelona went straight back on the attack and nearly had a third goal in the 59th minute. Messi picked out Cesc Fabregas with a free-kick, but Fabregas' volleyed goal was ruled out for offside.
Barca finally grabbed their third goal in the 67th minute. Fabregas unlocked Celta's defence with a long, cross-field pass, and Neymar beat two defenders before finishing low past Yoel. Four minutes later, Neymar left the pitch to a warm ovation from the home fans after being replaced by Pedro.
Celta had their best chance in the 76th minute following a miscue in Barcelona's defence. Holding the ball deep in his own half, substitute Sergi Roberto passed back to Pinto, who attempted to clear with his left foot under pressure from Mario Bermejo. Pinto's kick rebounded off Bermejo, sending the ball just wide of the goal as Bermejo tried in vain to chase it down.
Pinto needed treatment after running into the upright at the end of the play, but he recovered after a brief delay. Eight minutes later, the backup 'keeper made another fine save, keeping out Bermejo's header to preserve Barca's clean sheet.
Reaction to follow…
|Barcelona Player Ratings vs. Celta Vigo|
|Jose Manuel Pinto (for Valdes, 24')||6.3||8.1|
|Sergi Roberto (for Iniesta, 46')||N/A||6.5|
|Pedro (for Neymar, 71')||N/A||6.5|
|Ratings by WhoScored.com|
|Celta Vigo Player Ratings vs. Barcelona|
|Inigo Lopez (for Cabral, 38')||6.0||6.4|
|Mario Bermejo (for Orellana, 64')||N/A||6.3|
|Borja Oubina (for Fontas, 74')||N/A||6.5|
|Ratings via WhoScored.com|
Barcelona play at Espanyol in the league on Saturday and host Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday.
Celta Vigo host Sevilla in the league on Saturday.