Suarez, Alba strike as Barcelona prepare for Chelsea by edging past Eibar
EIBAR -- Three quick thoughts on Eibar 0-2 Barcelona in La Liga on Saturday afternoon.
1. Barca prepare for Chelsea test with victory
Barcelona returned to winning ways in La Liga on Saturday with a 2-0 win away at Eibar but you could see why Ernesto Valverde would have preferred an extra day to recover from this one, with Tuesday's Champions League game against Chelsea in mind.
Eibar were the better side for large chunks of the game -- especially in the early stages -- but were undone by the space their aggressive pressing forced them to leave at the back, and Fabian Orellana's petulance.
Luis Suarez opened the scoring in the 15th minute, latching on to a magical pass from Lionel Messi, before Jordi Alba sealed the three points in the 88th minute after Orellana had been sent off for picking up a second booking.
With Chelsea in action on Friday, Valverde said he would have liked to play a day earlier this weekend. Not least because he knew the danger posed by Eibar.
The Basque side, with just one defeat in their previous 12 league games, flew out of the blocks and pinned Barca back for large chunks of the opening exchanges. They had chance after chance in the opening 15 minutes, with Kike missing the best of them, but they lacked the quality of their opposition.
Or, better put, the quality of Messi. It was the Argentine's glorious ball which paved the way for Suarez's opener to temporarily flatten the Ipurua crowd.
Eibar almost responded immediately, the ever-involved Orellana hitting the bar from distance, and they continued to press Barca in the second half. Takashi Inui wasted another good chance before a frustrated Orellana saw red, earning a second yellow card for punching the ball away in front of the referee.
Messi came close to adding a second after a smart pass from substitute Philippe Coutinho, before Alba finally sealed the points with an easy finish from close range.
Barca extend their unbeaten start in La Liga to 24 games -- their previous record was 21 -- and end a run of back-to-back draws which had allowed Atletico Madrid to move within seven points of them at the top. Their breathing space still intact, there's not much time to breathe. On Tuesday they're off to Stamford Bridge.
2. Messi and Suarez keep Coutinho and Dembele waiting
Not many teams in the world will cost €300 million to assemble, but that's how much Barcelona have spent on Ousmane Dembele and Coutinho. Both of them, though, were left on the bench for the game against Eibar as Valverde named what the majority of the Catalan media felt was his strongest side.
There are, of course, reasons neither of the club's record signings are yet considered essential when it most matters. Dembele has had terrible luck with injuries and Coutinho is only just getting started, having joined in a club-record €160m deal from Liverpool in January.
However, the biggest reason neither are being thrown in is because Barca can still rely on Messi and Suarez to come up with the goods. The former set the latter up for the game's opening goal and it's a partnership which has helped the Blaugrana build a 10-point lead at the top of the table -- Atletico Madrid can move back within seven points on Sunday.
It was also Messi's blocked shot which led to Alba's late clincher.
In total, Messi has 20 league goals -- he's also hit the woodwork 15 times, including once against Eibar -- and Suarez has 17. They are the top two scorers in La Liga. Meanwhile, Messi has also created 11 goals in the league this season as he plays creator and goal scorer on an almost weekly basis.
And while that's still happening, Coutinho and Dembele have plenty of time to feel themselves into the side.
3. Eibar show European credentials
The attendance at Ipurua on Saturday was a new club record for Eibar, with 6,760 supporters squeezing into the stadium in the valley to see the La Liga leaders come to town. That statistic alone is enough to demonstrate the gulf between these two sides. Barca's average attendance is more than 10 times that figure, while the entire population of Eibar (fewer than 30,000) would fit into Camp Nou more than three times over.
But despite the odds being piled against them, Eibar's La Liga fairytale is showing no signs of ending. This season could even end up being their best-ever in the top flight since their 2014 promotion.
In 14 league games since the beginning of November, they have been beaten just twice: by the top two; Atletico Madrid and now Barca. During that time they have beaten third-place Valencia and embarrassed Sevilla by putting five past them last month. They could quite easily have beat Barca, too, and will perhaps claim to have been the better side.
Jose Angel Valdes, Ivan Ramis and Kike all came close to opening the scoring before Suarez finally struck. There was almost an immediate equaliser, too, when Orellana struck the bar from distance. Joan Jordan then missed a great chance and there were further opportunities for Inui and Orellana.
Even after Orellana's red card, Eibar still posed a threat. They didn't get their reward here but they may still get it at the end of the season. Despite this defeat, they still have every reason to believe they can qualify for the Europa League this year.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.