BARCELONA – FC Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde said on Friday that arch-rival Real Madrid still has a chance to fight for the La Liga title, despite losing to the Catalan club and trailing badly in the standings.
Following Saturday’s 1-0 defeat by leader Barcelona, third-placed Madrid is 12 points off the pace; meanwhile, with 12 matches to go the other capital team, Atletico Madrid, holds second place, seven points behind the Catalan club.
“Obviously I do not rule them out (of the title race). Out of respect and for mathematics,” Valverde said during a press conference on the eve of a home La Liga game against Rayo Vallecano.
“There are still 36 points up for grabs. I do not care what other people think. They (Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid will) have their chances,” Valverde stressed.
However, the coach highlighted the importance of keeping distance between his club and the two rivals.
The need to continue winning and gaining more points will be at the forefront of the players’ minds in the Saturday match against Vallecano, the first league match for the Catalan team after defeating Madrid twice at Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
“Tomorrow’s three points are as important as the ones we obtained at the Bernabeu or Sevilla,” Valverde said. “Nowadays, winning in our La Liga is very hard and as the end of the season looms, it becomes harder.”
With an eye toward the second leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 against Olympique Lyonnais on Wednesday, Valverde hinted that in the Saturday Vallecano match he may sit some of his players and rest them.
Despite this plan, Valverde underscored that it was likely Barcelona defender Gerard Pique would start against Vallecano, even though the defender has already played a total of 37 matches across all competitions for the Catalan side.
“He is playing at a very high level and I know he has been playing a lot, but he does not join the national team and he no longer has that load of matches and also he was rested in Cup matches,” the coach said when discussing Pique.
When asked about another player, Croatia midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who has reportedly been linked with a move to Serie A’s Inter Milan, Valverde said, “There is nothing that makes me think that Rakitic will not be with us next season.”
Finally, the coach fielded a question on what he thinks of Argentina star Lionel Messi’s return to the Argentine national team for friendlies against Venezuela and Morocco later in the month, to which Valverde said, “that is something that concerns the coach (Lionel Scaloni) and Leo. His returning to the national team sooner or later is something we all knew would happen.”
Messi, who has been in superb form in the 2018-2019 season and leads La Liga in both goals (25) and assists (11), has not played for Argentina since their elimination by eventual champion France at the World Cup in Russia.