In their last home fixture of the 2013 calendar year, Barcelona finished on a high to go undefeated at the Camp Nou in the Spanish Primera División as they defeated Villarreal 2-1.
The visitors were without arguably two of their best players in Bruno and Cani through injury, which resulted in Villarreal lining up in a more defensive formation than usual, despite their success through attacking play this season. Whilst Barcelona were still without Alves, Valdes and Messi, Jordi Alba returned to make his first start for Barcelona after being sidelined through injury in September replacing the suspended Adriano.
Superstar signing Neymar took off from where he left off against the demolition of Celtic in midweek with an array of step overs to beat his man and some neat team play with Jordi Alba won the home side an early corner. The delivery by the Brazilian was flicked on by Gerard Pique which was brought down by Alex Song and the Cameroon international unleashed a right footed venomous volley which ricocheted back off the woodwork from an acute angel denying Barҫa an early goal.
The home sides dominance in possession continued past the 10 minute mark and a chance soon opened up again for Song whose driven cross flashed across the 6 yard line but there was no one on hand in a Barҫa shirt to finish off the move.
Villarreal summer signing Giovani Dos Santos, making his return to Barca where he had graduated from La Masia, found himself very isolated playing as a sole striker as the Amarillo’s struggled to get the ball forward when in possession. However, as Barҫa gave the ball away, Giovani pounced and was able to knock the ball beyond Bartra and run down the left flank providing a good low cross for the oncoming support that was incoming, but Iniesta managed to intervene before a yellow shirt could get latch onto the cross.
Villarreal slowly worked their way into the game and soon Barҫa committed a number of unforced errors when passes where simply misread, and communication breakdowns between two players allowed the ball to go out of play on several occasions. However, taking too much time on the ball, Villarreal were caught out as Iniesta pinched the ball and Fabregas put in a great through ball for Neymar, but full back Gaspar stood tall and cleared the danger with backup from the skipper Mateo Musacchio.
The visitors defended very centrally forcing Barҫa to send the ball wide and back and forth without creating any chances, as the full backs stayed very close to their defensive counterparts. The Blaugrana became seemingly frustrated as they struggled to produce one touch football through the centre to create chances.
However, an attempted cross by Alba on the full, struck Mario Gaspar on the forearm and a penalty was awarded. In his defence there was very little the defender could do in the time to react, and his arm was down by his side, and in truth was a very unfortunate decision to go against the away side. Neymar stepped up to take the spot kick and with a long stuttering run up, the inform man slotted home coolly from 12 yards putting Barҫa 1-0 to the good on 30 minutes.
Despite only having 26% possession in the opening 36 minutes, Villarreal were looking for an instant response to going a goal down as they chased down the defenders on a number of occasions showing great determination to win the ball, but as per usual, Barcelona passed the ball between themselves and out of danger making it look so easy.
In the 39th minute, Alexis Sanchez went close to doubling the lead when a cross from the advancing Montoya pinged around the area before Iniesta could get his shot away but a wicked deflection sent the ball straight to Alexis, but the Chilean was denied from 8 yards by a fabulous save by Asenjo, diving at full stretch to his left.
Controversy was sparked moment before half time, as a cheeky chip through ball by Montoya to Alexis, who had beaten the offside trap to run into space 18 yards from the bi-line on the right, the clock struck 45 minutes and as so often with La Liga games, no stoppage time had been added and the whistle was blown for the interval causing fury with Barcelona players and crowd.
Villarreal had defended extremely well up until the goal, and will consider themselves extremely unfortunate to have gone in 1-0 down at the break. Just 66,000 were inside the Camp Nou, a surprising low turnout for such a high profile game which in the 2010/2011 season attracted over 97,000 spectators including myself that day.
Villarreal took advantage of the smaller crowd influence at the Camp Nou immediately after the break when a whipped in corner by Manu Trigueros was met with sheer determination by the skipper Musacchio and the ball flew into the back of the net, leaving Jose Manuel Pinto grasping at thin air. This fired some energy into the Villarreal performance as moments later Giovani carried the ball inside into space and was able to get away a left footed shot which missed the near post by a whisker.
Barҫa came close to regaining the lead as Alexis received the ball on the edge of the area and fired on target on the turn, but was denied by Asenjo who could have only impressed his parent club Atlético Madrid with his match performance.
The Catalans began to struggle to create any clear cut chances as Fabregas operating in the ‘False 9’ position drifted deeper into a midfield role. It was therefore no surprise to see Xavi going through a series of stretches on the touch line just 10 minutes into the second half. Possession stats at this point were still looking as high as they had done all season for the home side, but Andreas Iniesta, who at times seemed to make the smallest areas on the pitch seem big enough to build himself a new house, as he so calmly turned away from two, three, sometimes four defenders, but the support he had to lay the ball off after committing defenders and opening space was minimal and a change was needed.
The change finally came on the hour mark, as Xavi entered the field of play to replace Alex Song, who in truth had not had a bad game playing in a more central midfield role than his preferred defensive midfield role.
As the Camp Nou found its voice again chanting for Catalan independence, Barcelona came so close to a second when Alexis provided an inch perfect pass for Fabregas that carved up the Villarreal defence in two, but the Spaniard drilled his shot straight at Asenjo when the opportunity to conduct a chip shot was ideal given the close proximity of Asenjo when Fabregas was pulling the trigger.
With Xavi now present, Barcelona began to set up camp on the edge of the Villarreal box and after a series of attempts and much crisper passing, Fabregas fizzed a fantastic ball across the final third to pick out an advancing Alexis who having beat the offside trap, cushioned the ball with his chest and squared to Neymar who tapped in from 2 yards to Barca back in front.
Neymar nearly got himself a second hat-trick in 4 days as his trickery allowed him to skip past Gaspar and unleash a driven shot, but his effort was denied by the outstretched legs of Asenjo who had kept Villarreal in the game a number of times in the game.
The difference Xavi made to the whole team performance was remarkable as suddenly Barҫa found an extra spring in their step and were able to make positive use of all the possession they were having. Furthermore, it seemed to pin down the Villarreal midfield with Pereira and Pina being given the run around by the veteran midfielder.
Not for the first time in the game, Barcelona denied themselves a goal when Montoya took too long to release the ball from the wide areas he so often found himself in, as an additional and unnecessary touch killed the chance to square the ball to Neymar who was free in front of goal with the Brazilian screaming and waving his arms at the Spanish U21 international, as he was in for an easy finish to seal another hat-trick.
Villarreal were looking to make Barҫa pay for wasting such chances in stoppage time by applying pressure and creating a late chance from a corner, but last ditch defending saw Piqué clear the ball and a resulting counter attack for Barcelona saw substitute Pedro Rodriguez latching onto a threw ball but his shot at full stretch, was steered into the side netting.
In a bizarre turn of events, Neymar was booked for what can only be assumed was taking the corner before the whistle had gone, and the Brazilian stood bemused and laughing with fans as the card was produced.
However, despite the one goal advantage and time ticking away, Barcelona looked eager to bag a third and it so nearly came from Neymar when he cut inside from the left producing some of the most outrageous skills running with the ball that Camp Nou had seen since the days Ronaldinho used to grace the hallowed turf, leaving 3 defenders in a total spin and his one two with late substitute Sergi Roberto, to wriggle free from the defenders had the crowd on their feet anticipating the net to bulge when the Brazilian fired with his right foot, only to see his effort skim the top of the bar from 18 yards. However his effort would have been ruled out as Sergi had stepped marginally offside during the move, but the skills shown by Neymar during the move simply can’t be overlooked.
The final whistle sounded giving Barcelona the victory they were looking for, but it was far from convincing as it was not until the introduction of Xavi on the hour mark, did Barcelona start to dominate proceedings, and on another day, the Catalan giants could so easily have been made to pay for the wasteful chances they had in front of goal.
For the next round of La Liga fixtures before the winter break, Villarreal host Sevilla, and on the back of their performance against Barcelona, they will be in high spirits given how well they composed themselves for vast parts of the game against one of Europe’s elite, meanwhile Barcelona face a trip to the capital to play Getafe on Sunday, but before Liga battle recommences the Copa Del Rey continues midweek.