BARCELONA, April 18, (Agencies): Barcelona’s stuttering title bid suffered another setback when they lost 2-1 at home to Valencia as they registered a third straight La Liga defeat for the first time since 2003.
Luis Enrique’s shell-shocked side are level on 76 points with Atletico Madrid, who knocked the holders out of the Champions League in midweek, and remain top only due to a superior head-to-head record.
An own goal by Ivan Rakitic put Valencia ahead after 27 minutes and Santi Mina added a second just before halftime to stun the Barca supporters at the Nou Camp.
Lionel Messi scored his 500th career goal to reduce the deficit after 64 minutes but the struggling hosts, who have squandered a nine-point lead, could not find an equaliser.
Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves produced a spectacular save to deny Rakitic late on and Gerard Pique agonisingly missed the target at the near post in stoppage time.
Barcelona boss Luis Enrique claimed his side are capable of winning their final five La Liga games to claim the title despite slipping to a fourth defeat in five games as they were beaten 2-1 by Valencia on Sunday.
The Catalans hadn’t tasted defeat in 39 games until losing to Real Madrid earlier this month, but have since thrown away a nine-point lead at the top of La Liga and been dumped out the Champions League by Atletico Madrid.
Barca still lead La Liga thanks to their superior head-to-head record with Atletico with Real a point behind in third, but now need to win all five remaining games against Deportivo la Coruna, Sporting Gijon, Real Betis, Espanyol and Granada to keep matters in their own hands.
Moreover, they have now lost three consecutive La Liga games for the first time in 13 years.
“If there is a team capable of doing it and much more given what they have done, it is this Barca,” said Enrique.
“Perhaps it is more difficult than normal when the team loses, for me, unjustly some of the games we have lost. We lost two games in the first 30 and now three in a row, it is not normal.
“This sport generates a lot of surprises, I think we have criticised ourselves when it has been necessary, but today is not a day to criticise my players, it is a day to congratulate them.”
Barca dominated from start to finish against a Valencia side that had been dispatched 7-0 on their last visit to the Camp Nou just two months ago under the tutelage of Gary Neville.
However, they enjoyed better luck in Pako Ayestaran’s third game in charge as Ivan Rakitic’s own goal and Santi Mina’s fine finish put them 2-0 up at half-time despite having just one shot on target.
Lionel Messi’s 500th career goal gave Barca hope after the break, but an inspired goalkeeping display from Diego Alves and a shocking miss two minutes from time by Gerard Pique consigned the hosts to defeat.
“Feeling sorry for ourselves we won’t win anything,” added Enrique.
“The players have given a lesson in the second-half of how to face a situation like this. Until the 93rd minute they were trying to equalise and that is something to highlight.”
However, Enrique was elusive on whether he would consider stepping down at the end of the campaign if Barca’s incredible collapse costs them the title.
“I am only interested in football. There is nothing more important for Barca fans than turning around this situation and we know the difficulty of the challenge, so I’m not interested in anything else.”