Ivan Rakitic puts stuttering Barcelona back on top in win over Athletic Bilbao

Ivan Rakitic came off the bench to score Barcelona’s second-half winner against Athletic Bilbao on Thursday and put them clear at the top of La Liga, averting a second consecutive draw that would have further dented the champions’ title defence. Ivan  Ivan  Ivan  Ivan  Ivan Ivan Ivan  Ivan  Ivan 

Barça had slipped off the top of the table after Friday’s 0-0 draw at Sevilla and put in another sluggish display at an empty Camp Nou with their fabled front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann failing to sparkle. They finally found a way through in the 71st minute when Messi slipped the ball into the path of Rakitic. The midfielder had been on the pitch for only six minutes but kept his nerve to beat Athletic’s in-form goalkeeper Unai Simon.

The win took Barça to the top of the table on 68 points although Real Madrid, on 65, will reclaim their lead due to their superior head-to-head record if they beat Real Mallorca at home on Wednesday.

Atléti should have added to their lead in the first half but after the break had to withstand plenty of pressure from Levante, who are playing home games in the town of La Nucia while their Ciutat de Valencia stadium is being renovated. Yet Diego Simeone’s side saw out the victory to strengthen their position in third by moving two points above fourth-placed Sevilla and six above Getafe in fifth, who drew 1-1 at Real Valladolid.

Atlético Madrid earned a third consecutive win by beating Levante 1-0 away to cement their chances of qualifying for the Champions League. The game was decided by an own goal in the 15th minute from Levante’s Bruno González, who deflected the ball into his own net as he tried to prevent it reaching Diego Costa after some fine work from Marcos Llorente.

Hirving Lozano celebrates his late goal for Napoli against Hellas Verona.
 Hirving Lozano celebrates his late goal for Napoli against Hellas Verona. Photograph

In Serie A Napoli made Verona pay dearly for one of the misses of the season as they scored twice with headers from corners to claim a 2-0 win. Verona should have gone ahead in the 23rd minute when Davide Faraoni’s mis-hit shot went across the face of the goal but the unmarked Valerio Verre, needing only to force the ball over the line from a metre out, chested it over the crossbar.

Napoli duly went ahead when Arkadiusz Milik was left unmarked at a corner and sent a well-placed header into the bottom corner in the 38th minute. It was the Pole’s 10th league goal of the season. Verona’s frustration was complete when the Napoli substitute Hirving Lozano – reportedly out of favour with the coach, Gennaro Gattuso, because of his attitude in training – headed in the second at the far post from another corner in the 90th minute.

Napoli, who won the Coppa Italia last week, stayed sixth after extending their unbeaten run to eight games in all competitions, while Verona dropped four points behind them in eighth.

Cagliari ended a 12-match winless run in Serie A in dramatic style on Wednesday after a stoppage time goal by Giovanni Simeone gave them a 1-0 win at Spal, pushing their opponents closer to relegation. Simeone scored with a close-range header in the 93rd minute to give the Sardinian side, playing their second game under new coach Walter Zenga, a first league win since 2 December.

Arab Observer

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