MADRID (AP) Under pressure from its closest challenger, Barcelona stumbled again.
Barcelona couldn’t manage more than 1-1 against relegation-wary Las Palmas on Thursday, allowing Atletico Madrid to move within five points of the Spanish league lead ahead of their match this weekend.
Barcelona, which has drawn three of its last five league matches, will host Atletico on Sunday needing to halt an eight-match winning streak by Diego Simeone’s team.
Barcelona was 11 points in front of Atletico just five rounds ago, but could end the weekend only two points in front of the Madrid club.
“It would be an important match no matter what, with the first-place team playing against the second-place team,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said. “Maybe now it’s a bit more important with the lead at five points.”
Atletico was boosted by a 4-0 win over Leganes on Wednesday, when Antoine Griezmann scored all four goals.
Lionel Messi put Barcelona ahead on Thursday with a powerful free kick shot into the top corner in the 20th minute, but the hosts equalized through a penalty kick converted by Jonathan Calleri early in the second half after a controversial handball by Barcelona defender Lucas Digne.
At first it wasn’t clear why the penalty was called. A corner kick ricocheted off a post and the ball brushed Digne’s arm. Some Barcelona players initially thought the referee called a foul by Sergio Roberto on Matias Aguirregaray when the ball first arrived into the area.
Valverde said he and his players still didn’t know what the call was.
“They equalized after an invisible penalty,” he said.
Barcelona also complained about a non-call of handball by Las Palmas goalkeeper Leandro Chichizola outside the area just before halftime.
It was the fifth free-kick goal by Messi, who is the league leading scorer with 23, three more than teammate Luis Suarez. The Argentine playmaker has four goals in his last three matches. The Gran Canaria Stadium was one of the few venues where Messi was yet to score in La Liga.
Las Palmas stayed 18th in the 20-team standings, inside the relegation zone. The team from the Canary Islands has won only one of its last six matches.
Real Betis missed a chance to get near the Europa League qualification spots after being held by Real Sociedad to 0-0 at home.
The result dropped Betis to ninth place, four points behind Eibar, the first team securing a spot in Europe’s second-tier competition.
Sociedad stayed in 14th place.
Real Betis had won three of its last four matches.
ALAVES WINS LATE
Victor Laguardia scored a 90th-minute winner as Alaves handed 10-man Levante its fourth straight loss.
Levante, sitting just outside the relegation zone, played a man down from the 29th. Defender Chema was sent off for a foul that gave the hosts a penalty kick which was missed by midfielder Manu Garcia.
Alaves forward Munir El Haddadi was red-carded for a second booking in the 77th.
Alaves, in 14th place, has won four of its last five matches.
Levante hasn’t won its last 10 matches in all competitions.
There was a minute of silence before matches to honor former Barcelona and Sporting Gijon striker Enrique Castro “Quini,” who died of a heart attack on Tuesday. He was 68.
Jonathan Calleri played Sam Byram into the right of the box, but the Englishman hit his low shot wide of the far post in the eighth minute.
The Reds came close at the other end, with Joel Matip grounding a header off the underside of the bar off an 11th minute corner.
The chances continue to come, with Fernandes drilling a low shot through traffic that Simon Mignolet pushed out for a West Ham corner.
The breakthrough came in highlighter yellow, as Jose Fonte kept Sturridge onside for Philippe Coutinho’s through ball. The Englishman danced around Adrian to slide a low shot into the center of the goal.
The Hammers should’ve been level in first half stoppage time, but Andre Ayew hit the post from five yards out and put the rebound off the same post from a prone position.
Coutinho made it 2-0 shortly after Georginio Wijnaldum hit the crossbar on a swerving volley. The Brazilian maneuvered through space to beat Adrian to his right.
The third goal, another from Coutinho, came when Winston Reid was laid to the turf with an arm to the face at the other end. To add insult to injury, Wijnaldum’s offending arm may have handled the ball in the box.
The referee allowed play to go on, and Coutinho dribbled through the 18 to beat Adrian.
Now Chelsea have the chance to extend their lead to seven points with three games to go when they host second from bottom Middlesbrough on Monday night and if Chelsea then beat West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns next Friday they will seal the title.
For Tottenham, they’ll want to put out of their misery as soon as possible.
The damaging defeat at West Ham left their players looking stunned at the final whistle with Christian Eriksen stood with his hands on his hips and Harry Kane had his hands on his head in disbelief.
After the game Pochettino was subdued in his press conference, looking down at the table often and he already seemed resigned to finishing second in the table.
Can he explain why for the second season on the spin Spurs have found themselves in similar situations at the end of a campaign?
“If we win the league it is because you learn, and if you finish second it is because you improve but I think it is a big topic in football. You need to show that you can show up in the moment to win a league, to win a trophy,” Pochettino said. “Today was a key moment that we can show that it is not about playing well and not about running more or less. It’s about when you must win, you win. If you want to be a champion in our game, you must win. How? I don’t know. For me we have to try to move on and finish in the best way the season and still fight. Now, to be realistic, it is more difficult than before.”
Tottenham’s task has been made incredibly difficult, almost impossible, and their title hopes could be over before they next kick a ball.
Following their late collapse last season which saw Leicester pull away and Spurs eventually finish in third place, there must be some Tottenham fans dreading the final three games of the season with Liverpool and Manchester City still mathematically able to catch them in second place.
Where did this surprisingly dour display come from?
Spurs had won nine-straight games heading into this London derby with Pochettino’s side looking unstoppable and hunting Chelsea down. Yet, their sluggish performance suggested that something deeper than just tiredness was at play. Loose passes early in the first and second halves did damage, with Dele Alli off the pace and the usually unshakable Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld spooked.
Tottenham played like the knew the entire league, and every Chelsea fan, was waiting for them to fail under the Friday Night Lights at the London Stadium.
When Manuel Lanzini‘s second half strike put West Ham ahead, the home side never looked like relinquishing their lead. In fact, it was West Ham who looked more likely to score again and their manager Slaven Bilic said he’s side deserved to win and probably by more than one goal.
It’s hard to argue with him as the usually rock solid Spurs defense was all over the place, panicking as they tried to pour forward to grab an equalizer. Hugo Lloris‘ fine save from Jonathan Calleri kept Spurs in it but apart from a chance in the 21st minute which Adrian saved superbly from Harry Kane, plus a stop from Heung-Min Son early in the second half, Tottenham never looked fluid in attack.
There’s no disgrace that for a second season running a young Tottenham squad have stumbled in their bid to win a title.
The circus surrounding Leicester City last season saw them come unstuck and now they’ve come up against another seemingly unstoppable force in Chelsea. In fairness to Spurs they’ve never led Chelsea in the title race this season and, once again, they’ve always been playing catch up.
They haven’t thrown away the title or handed it to someone else. The chase, both this season and last, has simply worn them down. Still, phrases such as “that’s so Spursy” will not go away until they win a piece of silverware, something they haven’t achieved since the League Cup in 2008.
Spurs have still won more games and won more points than any other PL team over the past two seasons but the fact that they haven’t got any silverware to show for their fine campaigns will haunt them over the summer. However, there is plenty of promise ahead for this young side who have already had to deal with damaging moments as a unit.
Light often appears from our darkest moments.
Tottenham crumbled under the Friday Night Lights against West Ham but everyone connected with Spurs will be hoping it’s another setback which will only make them stronger in the future.
The only goal of the game arrived just after the hour mark as Manuel Lanzini pounced to finish and a sluggish Spurs side never recovered.
Here’s what we learned from the London derby which has put a huge dent in Spurs’ title hopes.
CRUCIAL PK CALL CORRECT
There’s been plenty of talk about the new video assistant referees (VARs) which are being trialed in many leagues around the world but I’m not sure an official watching 50 replays of a first half collision between Manuel Lanzini and Hugo Lloris would have been able to make the correct call.
Andre Ayew clipped the ball through to Lanzini but as he raced through on goal he didn’t get the first touch on the ball before Lloris clattered into him with a tackle. Referee Anthony Taylor waved play on but Cheikhou Kouyate‘s tame effort on goal was shanked wide and everyone stopped. Hammers fans, players and management expected a penalty kick. It never arrived.
If West Ham had not won, they would’ve pointed towards that call as costly. In the end it wasn’t, but it also pointed towards just how tough some of these penalty decisions are for referees and even VARs. Even with the technology in place, it’s hard to get these calls 100 percent correct.
TIRED TOTTENHAM LOSE GROUND
Spurs just didn’t look correct throughout this game. A sluggish start to both halves gave West Ham hope and Mauricio Pochettino‘s men weren’t energetic in attack of pressing high to win the ball back.
Much has been made of Spurs playing before Chelsea this weekend to try and cut their lead atop the PL table to one point, but there wasn’t much chatter about the three days less rest for Tottenham after their North London derby against Arsenal on Sunday.
Look at the stat below just before Lanzini put West Ham ahead. How often are Spurs, or any of Pochettino’s sides outrun?
Spurs were sluggish and even when three glorious chances arrived on the 21-minute mark they couldn’t make the most of it as Adrian denied Harry Kane brilliantly following Dele Alli‘s shot was blocked.
In the second half Heung-Min Son‘s shot was tipped wide by Adrian but it was Spurs who ran out of steam and looked under pressure. West Ham had several glorious chances to extend their lead with Jonathan Calleri forcing a wonderful stop from Lloris and Spurs’ usually watertight defense looked incredibly susceptible on the break.
Spurs lost at West Ham last March under the lights at Upton Park as their title bid took a huge hit. This time around a defeat to their fierce London rivals just about ended their title hopes.
LANZINI STEPS UP ON DERBY DAY, AGAIN
With Dimitri Payet gone in January, this was supposed to be Lanzini’s time to shine.
He’s cut a frustrated figure in recent weeks but he turned up when it mattered on Friday, buzzing around behind the energetic Calleri and reacting first to a loose ball in the box to slot home the winner.
The Argentine playmaker, like most of West Ham’s current squad, had a fine campaign last season and despite glimpses of his genius in 2016-17, he’s struggled.
Lanzini will grow into this central role after playing second fiddle to Payet last season and the first half of this and often shunted out wide. He’s now scored eight goals in 33 appearances this season, surpassing his seven in 32 appearances last season.
He received a standing ovation and the man of the match award for his performance which led West Ham to safety as they cannot be relegated. This performance may have just saved Slaven Bilic his job, too.
Finally, West Ham’s new home at London Stadium has a marquee win as the Hammers momentarily rose to ninth place in the table.