MADRID (AP) — The last-minute scramble to secure the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has started to pay off for Barcelona.
Aubameyang scored a hat trick for his first goals since joining from Arsenal at the end of the winter transfer window, leading the Catalan club to a resounding 4-1 win at Valencia in the Spanish league on Sunday.
Ousmane Dembélé, whom Barcelona wanted to leave but ended staying after rejecting a couple of offers at the transfer deadline, made his first start since then and set up Frenkie de Jong’s goal as Barcelona ended a two-game winless run in all competitions.
The result moved Xavi Hernández’s team back into fourth place in the final Champions League qualification spot in the Spanish league. Defending champion Atlético Madrid, which won 3-0 at Osasuna on Saturday, is fifth. Barcelona trails league leader Real Madrid by 15 points with a game in hand.
It was the fifth loss in the last seven league games for Valencia, which sits in 12th place. It is winless in seven straight matches in the competition.
Barcelona was coming off a 1-1 draw with Napoli in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs on Thursday. The five-time Champions League winner is back in the second tier of European soccer after failing to get past the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in nearly two decades.
Barcelona had struggled to capitalize on its chances against Napoli but was much more effective Sunday, scoring four times from six shots.
Aubameyang’s first goal came when he calmly hit the upper corner in a one-on-one situation in the 23rd minute. His second came from close range in the 38th after a pass by Gavi Páez, and the Gabon forward closed the scoring with a slight redirection of Pedri González’s long-range strike in the 63rd. The goal was initially given to Pedri but the league later changed it to Aubameyang.
Barcelona signed the 32-year-old Aubameyang after successfully turning in his documentation to the Spanish league in the last minute of the transfer deadline. He had made his first start against Napoli after coming off the bench in the second half of league matches against Atlético and Espanyol.
“He hadn’t been playing much but little by little he is gaining space in our team and hopefully he will keep helping us like he did today,” Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets said. “He is a great player and it’s a luxury to have him with us.”
De Jong had added to Barcelona’s lead from inside the area by completing Dembélé’s right-flank pass in the 32nd. Dembélé had come off the bench against Espanyol and Napoli after not accepting the club’s request for him to leave during the transfer window.
Valencia had pulled one closer in the 52nd with a header by Carlos Soler off Bryan Gil’s cross.
Valencia, playing in the Copa del Rey semifinals this season, had two goals disallowed in the first half — one by offside in the 26th and another in the 41st after video review determined the ball had gone across the sideline in the buildup.
Many of the nearly 40,000 Valencia fans at Mestalla Stadium again protested against Singaporean owner Peter Lim with banners that said “Lim Go Home.”
Second-place Sevilla stumbled in its pursuit of Madrid after being held 1-1 at Espanyol, moving to six points off the lead.
Madrid beat Alavés 3-0 at home Saturday and Sevilla needed a win to remain only four points back.
Sevilla played a man down from the 76th after defender Jules Koundé was sent off with a straight red card after complaining to the referee.
Rafa Mir opened the scoring for the visitors in the 36th after an assist by Papu Gómez, who had come into the match about 10 minutes earlier to replace the injured Anthony Martial.
Espanyol equalized early in the second half with a close-range header by Sergi Darder.
Sevilla is unbeaten in six straight matches in all competitions. Espanyol, in 14th place, is winless in six consecutive league matches.
BETIS MOVES CLOSER
Third-place Real Betis moved within five points of Sevilla with a 2-1 win home win against relegation-threatened Mallorca, with Willian José converting an 82nd-minute penalty kick for the winner.
It was the eighth win in the last nine matches in all competitions for Manuel Pellegrini’s team, which remains alive in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.