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La Liga: FC Barcelona 2-1 Villarreal CF: Match Review

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A review of Barcelona's important 2-1 La Liga win over Villarreal CF on Saturday night, as a brace from Neymar secured the victory for the Blaugrana

David Ramos

FC Barcelona were made to work for their three points, but ultimately secured a valuable win on Saturday evening at the Camp Nou, seeing off the threat of high-flying Villarreal in a narrow 2-1 victory. In the continued absence of Lionel Messi, Neymar once again stepped forward as the hero of the night, grabbing both goals – one either side of the half to cancel out Mateo Musacchio’s equaliser and send the Blaugrana three points clear at the top of the table.

Barcelona

Villarreal

Possession

76%

24%

Total Shots

13

3

Shots on Target

7

1

Pass Accuracy

89%

67%

Fouls

7

12

Offsides

4

0

Yellow Cards

1

1

Red Cards

0

0

Much to the chagrin of some Culés, Gerardo Martino opted to start Cesc Fàbregas at false nine – although rather bizarrely, there was actually room for the former Arsenal captain in midfield as Alex Song started alongside Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta. This surprise move meant that Neymar was once again forced back out to the left-wing after his impressive hat-trick in midweek, while Pedro dropped out of the starting line-up altogether. Would this unorthodox XI get the job done against Marcelino’s high-flying Villarreal?

Barcelona started the match strongly, immediately monopolising possession for virtually the entirety of the opening two minutes, only relinquishing the ball deep into Villarreal’s defensive third, as Alexis Sánchez ran into a cul-de-sac of yellow shirts. The Blaugrana soon regained possession, and settled into their usual stride, slowly building up pressure as they searched for an opening in a disciplined Villarreal defense.

Sensing that the middle of the field would be somewhat congested given the two teams’ respective line-ups, Barça opted to add some early width to their offense, sending the ball out to the touchline where Neymar and Jordi Alba combined to win an early corner kick for the hosts. Usually, corner kicks are something of a nuisance for the Blaugrana, but up against a team with a similar footballing philosophy, Barcelona went for a more direct approach – and very nearly benefitted.

Neymar delivered the corner – which in truth was nothing special. If anything, Neymar’s cross was slightly over-hit and evaded the leap of Gerard Piqué, who may have got the faintest of touches to help the ball onto Alex Song of all people, who rattled the frame of the goal with a powerful volley. It was a good effort from the Cameroonian midfielder, but ultimately not enough to hand Barcelona an early lead.

Barcelona were encouraged by that chance though, and their second shot of the evening also came from a corner as Neymar found the jump of Marc Bartra, who just couldn’t keep his headed effort down. Maybe this much should have been obvious – Barcelona aren’t a "route one" kind of side after all – but Barça needed a little more finesse to break this defense down.

Villarreal on the other hand were far less concerned with the style of their play; why would they be? Barcelona are damn-near unbeatable at the Camp Nou, and a goal is a goal, no matter how it is scored. The visitors may have been devoid of depth in their strike-force but in Giovani dos Santos they have a player capable of deciding any game – and the Mexican forward got a chance to stretch his legs on the quarter-hour mark, racing down the left flank to send a cut-back into the Barça area. Unfortunately, the visitors couldn’t capitalise on that half-chance, even if they could take away a few positives regarding the build-up.

The hosts may have been dominating the possession stakes, but it was a familiar story in the final third as the Blaugrana again lacked penetration. Credit to Marcelino for his tactics and to Mateo Musacchio in particular for standing strong at the back, but irrespective of their accomplishments, Barça should have really created something, anything from open play with players of that calibre in attack.

Then, fortuitously, and harshly, the referee created a chance for us; pointing to the spot as Jordi Alba’s cross was seemingly blocked by the arm of Mario. It appeared to be a "ball-to-hand" to me, but Neymar stepped up regardless, sending Sergio Asenjo the wrong way with a coolly-taken penalty. With half-an-hour on the clock, Barcelona had been gifted a lead.

Prior to the penalty decision, Marcelino would have surely been the happier of the two coaches – but now his entire gameplan was out the window. If he wanted to claim a share of the spoils from this game, he couldn’t afford to instruct his players to sit back, absorb pressure and hope for a lucky break. Villarreal needed to take the initiative and press on themselves. And as such, they would lose a touch of that defensive discipline.

In short, Villarreal would have to play with fire to get something from this match. And what happens when you play with fire? Of course, you run the risk of getting burned.

In this case, Alexis Sánchez was the one who very nearly did the damage, somehow stretching to control Andrés Iniesta’s wayward shot before testing Asenjo with an effort of his own. It was a forceful, low strike directed towards the bottom corner, but Asenjo got down well to palm the shot away to safety. For now, Villarreal would survive; would the second-half be a similar story?

Well, for starters, Barcelona didn’t monopolise possession from the outset – and that it turns out would be their downfall. Villarreal seized the early momentum, earning themselves a corner – which was expertly delivered by Manu Trigueros, driven into the area to find Mateo Musacchio. The Villarreal captain had expertly shrugged off the challenge of Marc Bartra to free himself up for the corner and didn’t disappoint with his header, powerfully directing the ball past the helpless Jose Manuel Pinto to tie the two teams at 1-1.

All of a sudden, the hosts were on the ropes and the visitors were the ones on the front-foot, pressing for a quick-fire second – and very nearly got one through Giovani dos Santos, who burst inside from the right-flank to let fly with a left-footed shot that whistled inches wide of Pinto’s near-post. The veteran keeper appeared to have it covered anyway, but it was a great attempt from the former Barça starlet.

Barcelona were facing a difficult test, and Gerardo Martino responded by bringing midfield veteran Xavi Hernández off the bench for Alex Song. It was a simple change, and one that immediately improved this Barcelona side. Alexis Sánchez for example had a more prominent role with Xavi on the field; whether that was mere coincidence remains to be seen, but it certainly made all the difference. First he threaded a pass through to Cesc Fàbregas, only to see the Catalan’s shot saved by Asenjo, but not to be disheartened, Alexis kept his composure to provide an all-important assist.

Cesc Fàbregas should take the bulk of the credit for his delightful pass over the top of the Villarreal defense, but let’s take nothing away from Alexis for his selfless play, as he cushioned that pass into the path of Neymar who duly tapped the ball into the empty net. It was Neymar’s 10th goal for the club – and arguably one of his most important yet.

Now that they were ahead for the second time this evening, Barcelona and Martino were not prepared to give up the lead again, opting to try and find a third to secure the three points. Andrés Iniesta came close to grabbing that goal in the 82nd minute, forcing a fine low save from Asenjo with a well-placed effort from just outside the area. In fact, if not for the heroics of Sergio Asenjo, Villarreal would have surely been dead and buried long before the end.

Not that it ultimately mattered – Barcelona didn’t relinquish the lead and secured an important three points in the process. With Atletico Madrid still to play, Barcelona were temporarily three points clear at the top of La Liga. Next up, the Blaugrana wrap up the Copa del Rey Round of 32 with a home fixture against FC Cartagena. Until then, Visca el Barça!