De Jong leads Barcelona to win over Elche in Spanish league

MADRID (AP) — Barcelona picked up its second win in a row without the suspended Lionel Messi, defeating Elche 2-0 to regain third place in the Spanish league on Sunday.

Frenkie de Jong scored in the 39th minute and set up Riqui Puig’s 89th-minute goal to give Barcelona its fourth league win in a row as Messi served the second of his two-game suspension for hitting an opponent.

The Catalan club moved a point in front of Sevilla, which on Saturday beat Cádiz 3-0. Barcelona was three points behind second-place Real Madrid — which won 4-1 at Alavés on Saturday — and seven points behind leader Atlético Madrid, which has two games in hand ahead of its home match against Valencia later Sunday.

It was the first time Barcelona won four consecutive league matches this season, with all four victories coming in away matches. It hasn’t lost in nine straight league games.

“We’ve improved since the year started,” De Jong said. “We’ve only played away games in the league and won all of them. We are doing better.”

De Jong scored into the open net after the Elche defense failed to fully clear a cross from Martin Braithwaite to Antoine Griezmann inside the area. The Dutch midfielder made a well-placed cross for Puig’s late header for his first-ever Spanish league goal.

Marc-André Ter Stegen made a crucial foot-save to keep Barcelona ahead in the 56th after Elche forward Emiliano Rigoni entered the area in a one-on-one situation. The breakaway for the hosts was prompted after a blunder by Barcelona defender Óscar Mingueza, who gave the ball away near midfield.

“It’s one of those plays that can make the difference in the match,” Elche defender Gonzalo Verdú said. “The goalkeeper made a tremendous save. A goal there could have changed the match.”

Barcelona was coming off a 2-0 win over third-division club Cornellà in the round of 32 of the Copa del Rey on Thursday, when Messi served the first match of his suspension for hitting an opponent in the team’s 3-2 loss to Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final on Jan. 17.

The Argentina playmaker will be allowed to return to action in Barcelona’s visit to Rayo Vallecano in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey on Wednesday.

Elche, winless in its last 13 league games, was second-to-last in the 20-team standings.

OSASUNA WINS

Osasuna snapped its own 13-game winless streak with a 3-1 victory over Granada.

Ante Budimir scored a pair of first-half goals for the hosts, who hadn’t won in the league since October.

The win moved Osasuna out of the relegation zone, while Granada stayed in seventh place.

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