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Barcelona held by Atletico, lose ground in La Liga title race

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Barcelona were held by Atletico Madrid at the Nou Camp as their La Liga title hopes took another blow.

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On a night where Lionel Messi scored the 700th goal of his incredible career (630 for Barcelona, 70 for Argentina), Barcelona were again their own worst enemies as they conceded two penalty kicks to drop more points in their La Liga title battle with arch rivals Real Madrid.

Barcelona are now one point behind Real Madrid who have played one game less, as Zinedine Zidane’s side can extend their lead at the top to four points with five games to go if they beat Getafe on Thursday.

As for Quique Setien’s Barcelona, they have now drawn three and won three of their six games since the restart and familiar issues are hitting them hard. Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite were left on the bench and Griezmann only arrived onto the pitch in the 90th minute as Barca ran out of steam against a typically spirited Atletico who are fighting for a top four finish and now sit in third as Diego Simeone is working his magic once again.

Atletico’s Diego Costa scored an own goal and missed a penalty kick early on but his spot kick has to be retaken as VAR determined Marc-Andre ter Stegen had strayed off his line, so Saul Niguez stepped up and slotted home the retake. Messi’s 700th goal arrived courtesy of a panenka penalty kick to put Barcelona ahead in the second half, but Gerard Pique fouled the excellent Yannick Carrasco (who won both penalty kicks) to give away a penalty kick which was slotted home by Niguez.

Barcelona have five games remaining but their destiny now appears to be out of their hands as they drew 2-2 for the second-straight game.

Elsewhere in La Liga, Real Mallorca hammered Celta Vigo to give themselves hopes in their battle against relegation. Mallorca sit in 18th, the final relegation spot, but they dominated 17th-place place Celta who they are now five points behind with five games to go. Ante Budimir scored twice, while Cucho Hernandez, Alejandro Pozo and Salva Seville were all on target for Mallorca. Iago Aspas got Celta’s lone strike from the penalty spot.

Sevilla beat strugglers Leganes 3-0, who are nine points from safety with five games to go, as Oliver Torres (two) and Munir kept Sevilla in fourth place as they aim to return to the Champions League.

Barcelona concedes late to draw at Celta Vigo

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MADRID — Barcelona’s hopes of staying in front of Real Madrid took a hit after another stumble in the Spanish league, after a tight Barcelona – Celta Vigo clash.

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Barcelona was held by Celta Vigo to 2-2 after conceding in the 88th minute on Saturday, opening the way for Madrid to take sole possession of the lead.

Iago Aspas scored from a clever low free kick that went outside the wall to steal the win from Barcelona, which moved only one point in front of Madrid ahead of the rival’s visit to last-placed Espanyol on Sunday.

“It’s a disappointing feeling, we lost two very important points in the fight for the title,” Barcelona striker Luis Suarez said. “Now we have to wait for Real Madrid to lose some points.”

Barcelona lost the league lead after drawing at Sevilla two rounds ago. Madrid has yet to lose points after the pandemic break.

“Our margin for error is getting smaller,” Barcelona coach Quique Setien said. “We have to win everything and hope that our rival makes mistakes.”

Celta moved further away from demotion with the draw, opening an eight-point gap to the relegation zone. It was coming off two victories, including a 6-0 rout of Alaves.

“We’ve won eight of the last 12 points, we have to be very happy with the team,” Aspas said.

Both Barcelona goals came from Suarez, who hadn’t scored since recovering from surgery on his right knee in January.

He got on the board first with a 20th-minute header after a set-piece taken by Lionel Messi, who again fell short of his 700th career goal for club and country. It was the third straight game in which Messi had a chance to reach the milestone goal.

Aspas, who hit the post in the first half, started the breakaway that led to the close-range equalizer by Russian striker Fiodor Smolov in the 50th.

Suarez put Barcelona ahead again with a shot from near the center of the area after another assist by Messi in the 67th, but Aspas pulled off the late equalizer with his free kick that left Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen flat-footed.

“I knew what I was going to do,” Aspas said. “We had watched videos and knew that the players in the wall were going to jump.”

Stegen later saved Barcelona from leaving Vigo without any points by making a goal-line save after a close-range shot by Nolito in the final minutes.

Barcelona hadn’t conceded in five straight matches. It hasn’t won at Celta in six consecutive matches, since 2015.

Setien started youngsters Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig, leaving Antoine Griezmann on the bench for most of the match at Balaidos Stadium.

OTHER RESULTS

Athletic Bilbao increased its chances of qualifying for the Europa League by defeating relegation-threatened Mallorca 3-1 at home, moving to ninth place.

The Basque Country club is three points behind sixth-placed Villarreal in the final qualification spot for second-tiered European club competition.

Mallorca, winless since the league resumed, remained in the relegation zone and could drop to last place depending on other results.

Former MLS player helping Spain in fight against coronavirus

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MADRID — Toni Dovale has a different routine than most Spanish soccer players during the coronavirus pandemic.

While some have been spending their time trying to stay fit or negotiating salary reductions with their clubs, Dovale is working to guarantee there are enough protective masks, gloves and medicine to help in the fight against the virus in hard-hit Spain.

The former Sporting Kansas City and Celta Vigo player who came through Barcelona’s famed youth academy has put on a white coat and is working in his family’s small pharmacy in the northwestern city of A Coruna while soccer remains on hold because of the virus.

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He had been playing in Thailand before coming to Spain for the holidays and got stuck when the outbreak started.

“I was packing my bags to go back to Asia for the new season, but the situation with the virus started to become tough,” the 30-year-old Dovale said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press this week. “I was not expecting to work now, but the only thing I could do was help. It was the right moment to come into the pharmacy and help my people.”

Spain has struggled with the coronavirus, registering more than 140,000 confirmed cases and nearly 14,000 deaths. The country has been in a tight lockdown since mid-March and the restrictions are expected to remain in place at least until the end of April. The nation’s health system has been overwhelmed and the government has been seeking any help it can get.

“I decided that the best thing I could do was to help my community, to come to the pharmacy and try to help people, to do my best so we can get back to our normal lives as soon as possible and hopefully I can go back to playing soon,” said Dovale, who has a pharmacy degree.

“With everything that is going on in our society, it was the moment for me to take a step forward,” he said. “I know there is a risk, because I’m exposed to the virus, it’s an uncomfortable situation, but I think that in the tough times it’s always the time to take a step forward and show your character.”

Dovale is one of four workers at his family’s pharmacy, and that’s including his mother, who is among the high-risk group for infection because of her age. They have been keeping social distancing among themselves and only three customers can enter the pharmacy at a time.

Dovale is a do-it-all employee, but one of his main responsibilities is to negotiate the purchase of medicine and supplies with laboratories and other providers.

“There is a shortage of many medicines. We don’t have masks, we don’t have alcohol. Gloves are not easy to find,” he said. “I try to call labs and everybody who can provide me material to help these people. It’s really painful when people come to the pharmacy asking for a mask and you cannot get this kind of stuff for them.”

Dovale said pharmacies have been crucial for people with non-coronavirus illnesses.

“We cannot forget that people can still become sick,” he said. “People still have diabetes, still have hypertension and many other problems. It’s very important that we take care of them, because the hospitals are collapsed and crowded.”

Dovale, an offensive midfielder with good playmaking and passing skills, scored four goals and had four assists in his 25 matches with Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer in 2014.

He started at Barcelona’s youth academy before joining Celta Vigo, where he played under current Spain coach Luis Enrique. He later also played for Spanish clubs Leganes, Rayo Vallecano and Lugo, where he played under current Barcelona coach Quique Setien.

“Great experiences,” said Dovale, who also had a stint with Bengaluru FC in India and was playing with Thai club Navy FC before the coronavirus pandemic left him stuck in Spain and led to the end of his contract.

Dovale said he feels he has four or five years of good soccer ahead of him, and he wouldn’t mind going back to Asia or the United States.

“The challenge of playing for titles and playing in international competitions is what makes me keep going forward,” he said. “In Spain, it is really difficult because only two teams can fight for titles.”

Dovale is trying to stay fit as well as he can, training in the morning at home and in a parking lot before going to the pharmacy.

He said he hoped the United States would be spared the things he has witnessed in Spain.

“My only advice is that they should take it seriously, because I never imagined that in Spain we would see that much pain. I never imagined that many people would be dying. I never imagined that so many hospitals would be absolutely collapsed. I never expected that we would be missing things like alcohol, masks and gloves,” he said.

“This situation just hit us from the back,” Dovale said. “My people, my community, are going through a lot of pain. I just pray for the people in the U.S. to stay safe. Hopefully they can stop it a little earlier than us, because for our country, for our community, it’s really painful and we will not forget about this situation, for sure.”

Some Spanish clubs decide to leave virus tests for others

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MADRID — Some soccer clubs in Spain have decided not to use the coronavirus testing kits offered to them by the Spanish league, saying there are others who need them more.

The league last week offered some 500 tests to its teams, prioritizing those that recently traveled to high-risk areas or already had players infected.

Celta Vigo said Thursday it wouldn’t use the tests because it “there are other groups in greater need” for them in Spain.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule ] 

Valladolid said it would not test its players at the moment, since none of them have shown symptoms. Team spokesman David Espinar said the tests should be prioritized for other people in the country, which is struggling to battle the pandemic.

Spain has more than 17,000 people infected with the virus. Nearly 770 people have died and more than 930 were in intensive care.

First-division club Alavés on Wednesday said it had 15 people infected – three players, seven members of its coaching staff and five other employees.

Valencia and Espanyol also were hit by the virus. Valencia said 35% of its squad and coaching staff were infected, while Espanyol said six members of its team and staff had the virus.

La Liga: VAR saves Barcelona, Atletico defense breached again

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Lionel Messi has saved Barcelona’s bacon on plenty of occasions throughout his illustrious career, and while officially today he’s once again led the club to three points with his 81st minute penalty to earn a 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad, VAR was the true hidden hero.

Replay caught Robin Le Normand miss with a headed clearance in the box, instead the ball just catching him in the shoulder, and the referee in the booth called for a penalty. Messi dispatched the spot-kick to earn the win and doom La Real to a harsh result. Still, Barcelona completely dominated the match ripping of 13 shots with six on target to Real Sociedad’s just one shot on frame.

Real Madrid loanee Martin Odegaard was kept relatively in check by Barcelona’s midfield while Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong were calming forces throughout for the home side. The three points sends Barcelona top of the La Liga table, with Real Madrid a chance to reclaim the lead tomorrow at Real Betis.

Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid was held to a third draw in its last four league games with a 2-2 home result against Sevilla, with the defense breached for the fourth straight match. Luuk De Jong put Sevilla up at the Wanda Metripolitano 19 minutes in after a miserable challenge from Stefan Savic saw the Dutchman’s first touch put him through. A penalty from Alvaro Morata brought Atletico back level past the half-hour mark, and they went in front just four minutes later through Joao Felix after Koke stole the ball in midfield and did all the hard work on the break.

Still, it wasn’t enough as Lucas Ocampos struck from the penalty spot just before halftime and the second half was goalless to see Atletico fall a full 13 points back of the La Liga leaders, potentially 14 back if Real Madrid wins tomorrow. Currently, that’s just good enough for fifth as Atletico Madrid sits outside the Champions League places. Sevilla, meanwhile, sits in third on 47 points, 11 back of the leader.

Elsewhere, Real Madrid youngster Takefusa Kubo gave Mallorca a 2-1 win over Eibar. The 18-year-old’s 78th minute goal proved the winner as he beat two defenders at the top of the box and delivered a low effort off the inside of the left post. The win was enormous for Mallorca who rose to 18th, still in a relegation position but only based on goal differential. Eibar sits in 16th just two points ahead of the drop.

Getafe and Celta Vigo played to a scoreless draw at Coliseum Alfonso Perez as the hosts ripped off 16 shots to Celta Vigo’s three but could not find the back of the net. Jamie Mata missed the biggest chance for Getafe just past the half-hour mark as he fired over from a central spot just outside the six-yard box. Getafe midfielder Mauro Arambarri was sent off for a second yellow card with eight minutes to go as the hosts looked for a winner, making the late push even more difficult. The draw is a disappointing result for fourth-placed Getafe who could have used the opportunity to pull away from Atletico Madrid after their draw against Sevilla. For Celta Vigo, the point is enormous amidst a relegation battle, sitting in 17th now two points above the drop.