Lionel Messi was away attending the birth of his son but Barcelona still had more than enough to beat 10-man Malaga 2-0 on Saturday and move 11 points clear at the top of La Liga.
Messi was watching the game on a television in hospital as Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho put his team two up inside half an hour at La Rosaleda, before Samuel Garcia was sent off in the 30th minute for a dangerous tackle on Jordi Alba.
Down a man and without a win in 12 matches, Malaga might have feared a rout but Barca settled for a straightforward victory, perhaps with one eye on Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 clash against Chelsea.
On Messi’s withdrawal, Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said: “I found out this (Saturday) morning, before leaving home, I had already been called by the delegate of the club and he had told me the circumstances surrounding Leo.
“We already more or less knew when it might happen. It wasn’t very difficult to replace him because I had a clear idea of how the game would go.”
Messi is expected back against Chelsea at the Camp Nou, where the score is 1-1 from the first leg, but Valverde will have been delighted with how his attackers filled the void, as Suarez, Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele all delivered excellent displays.
In particular, Dembele’s brilliant turn and pass was bettered only by Coutinho’s flicked finish for what was a superb second goal.
“He has that ability,” Valverde said of Dembele.
“Today I think had more success than at other times, but the good thing is that he always goes at the opponent, always challenges them, always tries to dribble, and we need people like that.”
The win means Barca extend their advantage over second-placed Atletico Madrid, who can pull the deficit back to eight points with a win over Celta Vigo on Sunday.
Malaga, meanwhile, remain rooted to the bottom of the table.
Ronaldo ‘from another galaxy’
Earlier on Saturday, Zinedine Zidane labelled Cristiano Ronaldo as “from another galaxy” after the striker’s double dragged Real Madrid to a 2-1 win over Eibar.
Ronaldo headed in an 84th-minute winner at Ipurua, having earlier put Real in front with an emphatic near-post finish. Eibar’s Ivan Ramis had equalised in between to give the home side hope.
But Ronaldo’s two goals mean he has now scored in seven consecutive games and boasts a remarkable 13 goals overall in that period.
The 33-year-old’s tally for club and country this season stands at 35 goals in 37 appearances.
“For me he’s from another galaxy,” Real coach Zidane said. “He knows that he will score. He is a different, special player. The statistics speak for themselves.”
Real move four points behind second-placed Atletico Madrid, while Eibar stay eighth.
Gareth Bale started up front alongside the Portuguese, while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, fit enough only to come off the bench in midweek, returned.
Modric was excellent throughout, the Croatian providing a sublime pass with the outside of his foot for Ronaldo’s opener.
“It’s true that after 15, almost 20 days, Luka came in and played a great game,” Zidane said.
“He is an important player for us and what he did, he did very well.”
Valencia remain a point behind Real and all but ended Sevilla’s hopes of finishing in the top four by beating Vincenzo Montella’s men 2-0.
Sevilla trailed Valencia by eight points before kick-off but that gap was stretched to 11 after two goals from Rodrigo Moreno sealed a comfortable victory.