10 Mar Ernesto Valverde felt his players were thinking about Chelsea during Malaga game
Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde accepted his players had Chelsea on their minds after coasting through the second half of the 2-0 win over bottom club Malaga, who played for an hour with 10 men.
Even without star forward Lionel Messi, who was with his wife following the birth of their third son, Barcelona had too much for the hosts.
Luis Suarez headed in a fine opener after 15 minutes before Philippe Coutinho added a second with a neat flick and Malaga midfielder Samuel Garcia saw red following a rash tackle from behind on Jordi Alba.
The comfortable victory leaves Barca 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid, who host Celta Vigo on Sunday, at the top of LaLiga.
Valverde had resisted temptation to rest several key players ahead of next week’s Champions League match against Chelsea at the Nou Camp, with the last-16 tie finely poised at 1-1.
“In the second half we began to subconsciously think about the match on Wednesday,” he said at a press conference reported by the Spanish press.
“Scoring early here was crucial, the red card made the match easier for us.
“We will have to suffer to progress past Chelsea.”
Ousmane Dembele continued to impress on his return from injury, setting up Coutinho’s goal.
Valverde said: “Dembele always tries, he has a place here, but he is a player who needs time, is young and had injuries, also there is pressure on him.
“Today is yet another step forward for him.”
Earlier on Saturday, Real Madrid, buoyed by their Champions League success over Paris St Germain, defeated Eibar 2-1 to record an eighth victory from their last nine matches in all competitions.
Despite the 15-point deficit, Valverde is not ruling Los Blancos out of contention just yet.
“Of course they’re a rival for the league title,” he said.
“They will remain to be a rival until the maths of the table suggest otherwise.
“I don’t discount them – and they would do well not to discount themselves either.”
Malaga, meanwhile, look set to lose their LaLiga status barring a remarkable turnaround over the closing weeks of the campaign, having slipped 11 points from safety.
Midfielder Garcia posted an apology on Twitter for his red card.
He wrote: “I want to apologise to the fans, my team-mates and Jordi Alba… my intention at all times is to play the ball. I’ve never been a player to kick out. I’m sad for the situation of the team.”