Barcelona one step closer to La Liga title as heavily rotated squad draws at Celta Vigo
Three quick thoughts from Barcelona's 2-2 La Liga draw at Celta Vigo on Tuesday.
1. Barca draw but take another step toward title
Barcelona are now just two wins away from a seventh La Liga title in 10 years, but they had to make do with one point at Celta Vigo as Iago Aspas scored late on with his hand to earn his side a deserved 2-2 draw.
Goals from Ousmane Dembele and Paco Alcacer sandwiched a Jonny Castro strike and had Barca on track for a first league win at Balaidos since 2015. But they were unable to hang on to the three points, with the brilliant Aspas scoring a controversial 82nd-minute equaliser after Sergi Roberto had been sent off.
A draw was not the worst outcome for a Barca side that made nine changes from the weekend's win over Valencia. They stretch their unbeaten run in the league to 40 games and move 12 points clear of second-place Atletico Madrid. They now need just six points from their final five games to sew up their 25th La Liga crown.
Ernesto Valverde responded to the criticism about his management of the squad in the wake of last week's Champions League elimination by making wholesale changes. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were among the players left on the bench in Vigo.
Paulinho headed wide early on for Barca and Denis Suarez was off target but Celta soon established themselves in the game. Marc-Andre ter Stegen made one brilliant save from Maxi Gomez and Yerry Mina blocked from the same player. Brais Mendez then brought another brilliant stop out of Ter Stegen as the pressure grew.
But it was Barca who took the lead. Philippe Coutinho pounced on a loose ball and Alcacer's centre was brilliantly slammed home by Dembele on the bounce, his first league goal since joining the club last summer.
The lead lasted less than 10 minutes. Celta were level by the break through Jonny, who slotted home Gomez's cross. They should have been ahead after the break, too. Jozabed curled wide when one-on-one with Ter Stegen and Pione Sisto struck straight at the German goalkeeper.
Once again, Celta paid for their profligacy. Messi and Sergi Roberto were brought on after an hour and the tide swung in Barca's favour. They had the lead again when Nelson Semedo and Dembele combined to set up Paulinho, whose shot was pushed over the line by Alcacer.
Still, Celta came, though, and always through Aspas. Sergi Roberto tugged down the striker when he raced clean through in the 70th minute and was rightly given his marching orders as a result. That was the only way Barca could stop Aspas, though, and he eventually scored a deserved equaliser, turning home an Emre Mor cross with the help of his hand.
Celta could have won it, too. Aspas -- who else? -- produced a sensational pass for Lucas Boye, but he was denied by Ter Stegen as Barca kept their hopes of an unbeaten season alive. Just.
2. Valverde survives mass rotation
When Valverde promised changes on Monday, no one expected so many. Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta were left in Barcelona and Messi and Luis Suarez were named among the substitutes. With an 11-point lead at the top of the table, the Barca coach made it clear that Saturday's Copa del Rey final is the important game this week.
Ter Stegen and Coutinho, then, were the only regular starters in a lineup that threw up plenty of talking points. In theory, it was Barca's reserve team. A reserve team, though, that included more than £500 million worth of players. Obviously, that number is skewed by the inclusion of Coutinho and Dembele, but the likes of Alcacer, Semedo, Lucas Digne, Andre Gomes and Paulinho didn't arrive for cheap. The wider focus of that is: have Barca spent well in recent seasons?
The second aspect of the team that caught the eye was the lack of academy graduates. For the first time since 2002, Barca's side didn't feature a single player with a La Masia education. Denis Suarez, who signed for Barca B from Manchester City, doesn't count.
Despite all the curiosities on the team sheet handed in by Valverde, though, Barca managed to see out a potential storm with their unbeaten season unblemished.
3. Aspas has fingers all over Celta comeback
When Messi came on in the 60th minute, that was supposed to be that for Celta. If anyone could swing this game one way or the other, it was the Argentine. And, fleetingly, that was true. His introduction saw Barca take control and within minutes they had re-taken the lead.
But Celta roared back, led by the insatiable Aspas. No Spanish player has scored more in La Liga this season than the former Liverpool and Sevilla forward and few players have been as important to their team in Spain's top flight this season. He was the best player on show here.
Aspas' fingerprints were all over Celta's biggest moments. It was his clever pass leading to the Gomez cross that saw Jonny equalise in the 45th minute. And it was Aspas who was hauled down by Sergi Roberto to leave Barca with 10 men for the final 20 minutes of the encounter.
Aspas wasn't done, though. There was still time for him to get on the end of Mor's cross to score his 20th league goal of an incredible season. Even if the final touch did come off his hand, he deserved it. And few would have denied his Celta side deserved the win if his late pass had been finished by Boye.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.