Another two points dropped away from home tonight now leaves us a horrible seven points behind Real Madrid and the possibility of a fourth consecutive Liga now looks much smaller. Perhaps the effort to overcome Real Madrid on Wednesday night took its effect on our players. What is clear this season is that we are finding it increasingly difficult to raise our game for some away games and perhaps after three and a half years of success the desire is not quite as high as it once was. It might have been different had Cesc Fabregas’s shot crept under the bar instead of bouncing out, but despite an excellent 15 minutes at the end from substitute Cristian Tello we couldn’t find a way through.
With so many injuries Pep Guardiola had limited options for his team selection but he still managed to surprise, preferring the strength and power of Mascherano in midfield over the creativity of Thiago Alcantara who I had expected to come in as the natural substitute for Andres Iniesta. Carles Puyol was at right back in a defence of three with Dani Alves and Adriano employed as wingers. In the third minute Adriano crossed from the left and after Messi had headed the ball back Xavi sent in a pass to Alves in an excellent position though instead of shooting Alves tried to send in the low cross that hit a defender before Diego Lopez turned the ball round the post for a corner. We were looking the more alert of the two teams in the first exchanges but then in the ninth minute Cani played a couple of neat one-twos to work a shooting chance from the edge of the area and Villarreal woke up to the realisation that if they worked for it they could start to worry Valdés.
However, it was Barça who continued to look the better team early on, we came close to a goal after robbing the ball high up the pitch thanks to our pressing, but Alves again tried to cross instead of shooting and the chance was gone. Then in the 17th minute Alves spotted Messi and sent him through on goal, Diego Lopez came off his line and Messi characteristically lifted the ball delicately over the advancing keeper but instead of a golazo the ball passed inches wide of the far post.
However, as the first half went on Villarreal began to rise as they realised we were not having our day. We saw danger after a free kick from the left as Valdés went for the ball that Piqué got to first, heading the ball up in a loop towards our own goal line where Mascherano had to be brave to head away under the bar, knowing he was going to get clattered by the forward. Encouraged, Ruben and Senna had shots, Valdés having to make a fine save to prevent Senna’s 20 yard drive. Then Villarreal had the ball in the net from the corner but Gonzalo was correctly called offside. Mascherano moved back to make a defence of four and we finished the first half with a couple of attacks but first Messi slipped in full flight and then Cesc failed to get a good enough control from Messi’s pass.
The second half began with a moment of controversy. Piqué lost the ball in almost exactly the same way as for Madrid’s second goal on Wednesday, Borja surged into the area before going down as Busquets challenged. There seemed to be contact though Borja made a bit of a meal of it and the referee decided to ignore it. We entered a frustrating period where we couldn’t seem to penetrate the area, and this was seen clearly one time that Adriano got away on the left wing but there were only yellow shirts in the area waiting for his cross.
The change seemed obvious and Alexis was brought on for the last 30 minutes though his miracle recovery didn’t appear to be 100%. the minutes kept ticking away and nothing was happening apart from a hopeful shot over from Adriano and a couple of runs from Messi that came to nothing. The stars were missing with Xavi and Cesc particularly quiet. Guardiola’s final move was to bring on Thiago and Tello for the last 15 minutes and for a while it looked like Tello would make all the difference. He attacked the right back at every opportunity and showed the spark that was missing from the rest of the team. Tello had only been on a couple of minutes when he pulled the ball back to Cesc whose shot took a deflection before Diego Lopez made a superb save pushing the ball against the crossbar, Alexis and Tello tried to pounce on the rebound but the defence were quick to close them down. Tello had a couple more tries to break the deadlock, but his dangerous low cross found nobody again in the six-yard box and with just a couple of minutes remaining Tello found Messi on the edge of the box but despite finding a gap to shoot through Messi’s shot went straight at Diego Lopez.
The feeling tonight is obviously not a very optimistic one. The performance was flat and it is not the first time this season that we have failed to do enough away from home. There will be plenty who want to recall our bad luck at times and certain refereeing decisions this season, but no complaining will recover the points lost, there is nothing for it now but to buckle down to try and win all our remaining games. It is a classic cliché that football is a funny old game and perhaps the seven-point gap may lead to a moment of relaxation from Madrid. It might not come next week or the week after that, but we will have to wait for our moment like a hungry wolf and when we get a chance to cut the difference we will have to pounce and then see whether Madrid can handle the pressure of seeing a lead reduced. It is a small chance but we must go for it with everything we have. There really must be no the-Copa-and-the-Champions-will-do type thinking or we may end up with nothing. This is not a time for any drastic action but Guardiola needs to be at his very best to lift the team which wasn’t looking nearly as fresh as it needs to be to keep winning titles.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Puyol 6, Piqué 6 (Alexis m59, 5.5), Abidal 7; Busquets 6, Xavi 5.5 (Thiago m75, 6), Mascherano 6.5; Alves 6, Messi 6, Fabregas 5.5, Adriano 6 (Tello m75, 7.5).
Barça yellows: m89 Thiago, m92 Alves