Barcelona - With Lionel Messi wowing fans game after game,
it's easy to overlook Jordi Alba, the player who often puts him in position to
score so many impressive goals.
Alba has become the indispensable sidekick for Barcelona's
all-time leading scorer.
"Leo and Jordi understand one another perfectly,"
coach Ernesto Valverde said after Saturday's 2-0 win over Celta Vigo when Alba
helped set up both of Barcelona's goals.
Alba first passed for Messi to shoot, with a rebound of a
save falling to Ousmane Dembele to finish off. Alba then assisted Messi for his
league-leading 15th goal of the season.
"Their relationship clicks," Valverde said.
"Sometimes rivals try to block their passing angles, but Jordi has a great
sense of timing. And even though adversaries know it's coming, it continues to
Alba has been running up and down Barcelona's left flank for
seven seasons now, but his importance to his team's attack used to be secondary
to the sparkling play of former stars Neymar, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez.
Neymar's exit two summers ago marked a turning point for
Alba. With the Brazil forward no longer soaking up all the weight of the attack
on Barcelona's left side, Alba was free to fully exploit his speed and passing
As Alba told Spanish sports daily Sport in 2017, "now I
have the entire left side to myself, and that is much better."
Messi often starts his attacks from the right or center of
the field to have his preferred left boot set to shoot. That leaves Alba in an
ideal position to stretch the defence with carefully timed bursts of speed to
break into the area behind the opposition's backline, often after exchanging
passes with Messi.
The 29-year-old Alba has developed the knack of knowing
where Messi will dart to in the box, often behind a dummy run by Luis Suarez,
where he can receive Alba's passes in a scoring position.
"They are very quick moves against defences that really
close down the open spaces," Alba said after Saturday's strong
performance. "But Messi always waits for the opportune moment to find
space, and I connect with him."
Alba has done his part in ensuring Barcelona went into the
Spanish league's winter break with a three-point lead atop the standings.
"Most of the passes that I give Messi end up in
goal," Alba said. "Leo never misses."
Second-placed Atletico Madrid heads toward the winter
transfer window with big questions about two of its top young players: France
defender Lucas Hernandez and midfielder Thomas Partey.
Hernandez has been linked to interest by Bayern Munich in
triggering the $91 million buyout clause that would free him from his contract.
While Atletico has denied that Hernandez wants to leave,
coach Diego Simeone appears to accept that he could lose the 22-year-old
"Lucas knows what I told him. I love him a lot, we have
watched him grow up," Simeone said after Saturday's 1-0 victory over
Espanyol. "Let him decide what he thinks is best and I will support
Thomas, who can play either as a holding midfielder or further
up in the formation, has also made it publicly known that he wants to play
"I have a deep affection for Atletico and I am grateful
for all that it has done, as well as for the fans, but sometimes I feel unhappy
at Atletico," Thomas said on Saturday.
Ignored by previous managers, 23-year-old Marcos Llorente is
playing well enough to threaten Casemiro's spot in the starting 11 as Real
Madrid's holding midfielder.
Llorente has started nine matches since Santiago Solari took
over from the fired Julen Lopetegui two months ago, benefiting from Casemiro
twisting an ankle.
Llorente scored his first goal for Madrid on Saturday when
he struck a powerful shot from outside the area to help beat Al Ain 4-1 in Abu
Dhabi. Madrid won its third straight Club World Cup.
"Life, like football, can change just like that,"