Barcelona returned to winning ways in La Liga against Villarreal in efficient fashion. The Catalans scored two goals, one in each half, with Gerard Pique opening the scoring and Carles Alena sealing the win. Perhaps even more importantly, Barcelona held its first La Liga clean sheet since late August.
Once again Ernesto Valverde had to work around a busy injury bug. The defense picked itself with only four senior defenders healthy while in midfield the trio of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal returned. In attack, Lionel Messi was joined by Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho on the wings.
Barcelona were quick to take control of the ball and managed to pin Villarreal back almost from the get-go. And it didn’t take Barcelona long for their first shot on goal as in the 8th minute Messi fired from the edge of the area, but Sergio Asenjo steered the ball out for a corner kick from which Barcelona would not threaten.
In the 13th minute Barcelona, mostly Pique and Clement Lentlet, would allow a dangerous attack to Gerard Moreno who would under pressure get a shot off that would clang off the post. Barcelona and ter Stegen, who also could’ve left his line to collect the ball and help out his defenders, would dodge a bullet and would quickly return to the offensive. However, Villarreal’s defense would allow very little through the middle – and what they did was from distance. Down both wings Barcelona found space, but the lack of a dangerous cross was painfully evident.
Barcelona were showing plenty of creativity in attack with some beautiful dribbles and lovely through the lines passing, but scoring chances were few and far between. Messi probably would’ve created a couple more had he not been hacked down on numerous occasions. But despite some beautiful moves, Barcelona were also guilty of a couple uncharacteristically wayward passes that saw Villarreal counter. But the hosts would create a good chance around the half hour mark though the middle, with some help from Jordi Alba, but Dembele’s low drive was blocked by Santiago Caseres three yards from goal.
Five minutes later, in the 36th minute, Barcelona would take the lead. Dembele’s corner kick was cleared back to him and the Frenchman sent another ball back in. This one found Pique in the middle who headed the ball back across goal. Asenjo managed to get a hand on it, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the goal. Two minutes later Barcelona were in action again, as Dembele, Messi and Alba combined on the left side, but Asenjo stopped Messi’s close range shot.
Villarreal would look for an equalizer in the final minutes of the first half, but Barcelona’s defense, with Pique making a couple excellent plays, held its ground. With no added time the referee whistled for halftime with Barcelona holding the lead.
Barcelona came storming out of the gate after the restart, first with a Dembele counter attack down the right that was snuffed out by the defense, and seconds later with Messi whipping a ball on goal that was brilliantly saved by Asenjo after a cheeky step-over by Vidal. Barcelona continued to attack but their early efforts went unrewarded.
In fact, after the good opening press, Villarreal would manage to launch a few good looking attacks of their own, but once again Barcelona’s defense did its job. However, Barcelona would create the next good look for either team, in the 57th minute on the counter, but Alba’s low ball was cleared just before Vidal would be left with an easy tap in – had the ball not been just a bit behind him.
A longer stoppage occurred in the 63rd minute when Alba stayed down on the ground and he didn’t appear to be completely OK, holding his head and neck area. Replays later showed the left-back caught an elbow to the back of the head moments earlier. However, Alba would return a couple minute later.
Searching for the equalizer, Villarreal brought on another attacking option in Carlos Bacca who replaced Manu Trigueros. A couple minutes later Vidal made way for Alena. Villarreal were growing more and more confident on the pitch and Barcelona were allowing the visitors to attack with numbers. The hosts pulled deeper and were now almost exclusively attacking on the counter and not looking to build through possession play.
In the 80th minute Valverde brought on some fresh legs in attack, with Malcom replacing Coutinho. Tension were high and with Barcelona “only” holding a one goal lead a certain nervousness set into the Camp Nou. But those nerves were calmed in the 87th minute after a brilliant pass from Messi that found Alena making a perfectly timed run through the heart of the defense. One-on-one with Asenjo, Alena made no mistake, chipping the ball over the goalkeeper for the first La Liga goal of his career.
Four minutes were added on, which included some bad blood between Pablo Fornals and Busquets, but more importantly the score would not change – mostly due to Asenjo who stopped a powerful Messi shot in the 92nd minute. Barcelona move back into first place as of right now, but could slip back into second after Sevilla finish their game. Barcelona’s focus will now turn to the Copa del Rey where the return leg against Cultural Leonesa awaits. There Barcelona hold a one-goal advantage courtesy of Lenglet’s late winner.