A week ago questions were beginning to be asked about the goal return of Brazilian star Neymar Jr. The €57 million signing had only managed five goals but this week he has doubled his tally with a hat-trick against Celtic on Wednesday and two more goals tonight to earn Barça a narrow 2-1 victory over Villarreal at Camp Nou. Neymar put Barça in front from the penalty spot after half an hour but Mateu Musacchio headed the visitors level from a corner shortly after half-time. Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez set the Brazilian up for the winner 20 minutes from the end and Barça held on for the victory which gives the blaugrana a three-point advantage over Atlético Madrid who play Valencia tomorrow and a five-point lead over Real Madrid who could only draw 2-2 at Osasuna earlier today.
Despite Neymar’s Champions League hat-trick Tata Martino decided to move the Brazilian back to the left wing in place of Pedro to make room for Cesc Fabregas who played a very deep false-nine role. Marc Bartra was preferred over Javier Mascherano in defence while Jordi Alba returned at left back in place of the suspended Adriano and Alex Song got a more advanced role in midfield which meant Xavi started on the bench.
Villarreal had to make do without the influential Cani and Bruno so coach Marcelino Garcia opted to sacrifice a forward, Uche, to bring Edu Ramos from Villarreal B into a five-man midfield, leaving Giovani dos Santos as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 formation. The Villarreal midfield tried to stay fairly narrow which left little room for Barça to go through the middle. Barça began attacking down the left with Neymar and Alba combining to win a corner in the fifth minute. Neymar sent the corner to the far post where Song managed an awkward control before cracking a shot against the top part of the near post.
Song began the game very brightly and his strong run forwards got him into some dangerous positions. In the 11th minute Iniesta and Neymar combined to find the Cameroonian inside the left side of the area but his low cross failed to find a finisher. Barça were pinning Villarreal back but it was complicated to penetrate. Villarreal offered little going forward besides one run into the area from Giovani and a shot deflected over from the other ex-blaugrana Manu Trigueros, but after the initial fifteen minutes the visitors were looking more comfortable.
Fabregas and Neymar both tried their luck with runs into the area but the Villarreal defence held firm then in the 28th minute a stroke of luck led to Barça taking the lead. Busquets played a long ball out to Alba who volleyed a cross first time with the ball hitting right-back Mario Gaspar on the arm. Mario’s arm was not tucked into his body but he was clearly caught by surprise by Alba’s quick cross and tried to move his arm away at the last moment. Referee Ignacio Iglesias Villanueva wasn’t interested in considering intentionality and pointed to the spot. Neymar took a stuttering run-up and then sent keeper Sergio Asenjo the wrong way with the kick.
Barça continued playing a patient game after the goal but with a hard-working approach whenever Villarreal regained possession. The result was that the ball remained mainly in Villarreal’s territory and as the first half drew to a close Barça began to create more danger. In the 40th minute there was a glorious chance to add to the lead, Iniesta drove the ball back into the penalty box and the ball came to Alexis who had time to place his low shot for the corner from twelve yards out but Asenjo sprang across to make a fine left-handed save. Within a minute the busy Alexis had sent in two dangerous crosses but the first was cut out by a defender and the second was just out of Fabregas’s reach at the far post.
Villarreal had performed well defensively but they had offered little going forward and Barça deserved the one-goal advantage at the break. However, just two minutes into the second half Giovani won a corner on the left. Trigueros swung over the cross and Musacchio was stronger than Bartra to win the position and head firmly past Pinto from six yards. Bartra has come on well this season but this is still one factor of his game which could be improved.
Barça changed little after the equalizer with Fabregas continuing to drop deep away from the danger zone. The most noticeable difference was that both Bartra and Piqué were encouraged to bring the ball forward when there was space and in the 53rd minute it was Bartra who forced his way into the last third of the pitch before slipping the ball to Alexis who forced another save from Asenjo. Villarreal were encouraged by their goal and their midfield tenaciously worked to close down space. Giovani began to see a little more of the ball and at this point the game could still have gone either way.
In the 62nd minute Martino brought on Xavi in place of Song whose influence on the game was diminishing. A minute later Alexis found Fabregas, for once making a centre-forward’s run, but his shot hit Asenjo and flew over. Soon after, Marcelino was obliged to bring off the tiring Ramos and replace him with Uche as Villarreal reverted to 4-4-2.
The changes benefitted Barça but it was another stroke of luck that led to Neymar’s winner. There wasn’t much danger when Alba knocked the ball back to Fabregas in the inside-left position, but when Cesc sent in his cross to the far post the entire Villarreal defence came out except for left-back Jaume Costa which left Alexis onside and free to receive the ball, and as Asenjo moved towards him the Chilean slipped the ball square to Neymar who swept the ball into the empty net.
Three minutes later and Neymar might have completed his second hat-trick in a week. Piqué broke forward and sent the Brazilian into the area but the angle was tight and Asenjo saved at the near post. Villarreal had to try and attack now which led to an open end to the game though it was Barça who were making chances. The team again showed a good attitude to keep matching Villarreal’s work-rate and another Barça goal in the final minutes would not have surprised. Asenjo made another superb save to stop Iniesta’s 20-yard volley and Neymar ended the game with more exciting runs but with no finish. The Brazilian also received an absurd late yellow card for taking a corner which for some reason displeased the referee, and he will now miss next week’s game at Getafe through suspension.
It was a good day for Barça with a decent performance, a victory and Madrid dropping points in Pamplona. However, if it hadn’t been for a fortunate penalty and an awful piece of defending by Jaume Costa we might not be feeling so satisfied tonight.
Barça: Pinto 6; Montoya 6, Bartra 6, Piqué 7, Alba 6.5; Song 6.5 (Xavi m62, 7), Busquets 8, Iniesta 6.5; Alexis 7.5 (Pedro m84, –), Fabregas 6 (Sergi Roberto m87, –), Neymar 7.
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Dorado, Costa; Aquino (Pereira m74), Edu Ramos (Uche m68), Piña, Trigueros, Perez (Jokic m68); Giovani.
Goals: m30 Neymar (pen) 1-0, m48 Musacchio 1-1, m68 Neymar 2-1.
Yellow cards: m38 Trigueros, m85 Neymar (misses next match).