“We must fight to the end like Tito”. Javier Mascherano’s words said it all after Barça came back from 2-0 down to beat Villarreal last night. It was a difficult night for the Blaugrana, being forced to play just 48 hours after the loss of Tito Vilanova. There were tears from Sergio Busquets during the minute’s silence before the game and after two Villarreal own goals and a Leo Messi winner had earned an improbable victory to keep Barça’s slim title chance alive, Mascherano collapsed in an emotional heap at the final whistle.
It was obvious that Barça’s players wanted to put on a good show in Tito’s memory but it was never going to be easy given the circumstances. The sad faces during the minute’s silence were reflected in the team’s play, the players went through the motions and soon gained control of possession, but the weight of grief was seen in heavy legs and Barça found it tough to find any spark to the play.
The situation was made more difficult by a hard-working well-organised Villarreal side that was prepared to sit back and frustrate while waiting for the chance for a quick break. With Messi having another off-day Barça lacked ideas to break through, and as we have seen too often in recent games the main attacking option was to give the ball to Dani Alves to cross. In the first half the Brazilian’s numerous crosses led to nothing and the only two notable chances came after good work from Alexis. In the 17th minute the Chilean sent Messi into the area but the Argentinian’s shot from 10 yards was too close to Sergio Asenjo and the keeper saved with his foot. Then four minutes before the break Alexis got past his man to the line and pulled the ball back to Pedro who touched it on to Xavi whose shot was blocked.
Despite Barça’s domination of possession Villarreal managed to look the more dangerous team on the break. Johnathan Pereira, who had replaced the injured Perbet in the 14th minute, was a constant threat, coming close in the 24th minute with a shot that was deflected wide off Giovani dos Santos. Then a minute later Cani sent a dangerous cross skidding across the goalmouth that was just out of Giovani’s reach. Barça regained control after this double scare but then shortly before half-time the home side again pushed forward. First Pereira sent a pass into the area for Giovani, Pinto came out to close the angle but Giovani squared the ball for Aquino who was only denied a goal by Bartra block near the line. Then as the game entered first-half injury-time Alves was caught upfield which meant both Bartra and Mascherano had to move across leaving a gap for Pereira to send an excellent pass in for Cani’s run from deep, Adriano couldn’t get across in time and Cani slipped a first-time shot inside Pinto’s left-hand post.
Messi began to appear more in the second half. In the 51st minute he picked up speed coming in from the right but his low curler was comfortably saved by the diving Asenjo. Then a couple of minutes later the Argentinian sent a decent free-kick over the wall but the keeper again followed the flight well to save. Then came Villarreal’s second goal, a quick move up the right led to Aquino pulling a cross back to the edge of the area which was met by the late run of Trigueros who powered a header past Pinto from 16 yards.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Barça’s weakness in defence was usually exposed at set-pieces and by quick long balls behind our high defence. Last night’s goals were both conceded because we didn’t press the player on the ball enough while the midfield failed to pick up or follow a late run from deep.
The team might have folded at 2-0 but the players showed character to react. Messi came close with another free-kick, this time with the help of a deflection off the wall, but Asenjo twisted brilliantly to save. Then soon after, Iniesta curled a shot narrowly wide from the edge of the area after Xavi dummied Alexis’s cross.
Martino brought on Fabregas and Tello in place of Xavi and Alexis, and Pedro moved across to the right. Three minutes after the changes Fabregas played a quick pass to Pedro who flicked the ball on for Alves to shoot, the ball took a deflection off Jokic before hitting Gabriel and the ball bounced past the surprised Asenjo to put Barça back in the game.
Finally Alves got some returns for his efforts and thirteen minutes later he would get some more when Musacchio inexplicably headed his cross in for another own-goal. Some may talk of luck or even divine intervention but I like to think the goal came as payback to the low-life pinhead who demonstrated his lack of braincells by throwing a banana. The response from Alves to eat the banana was brilliant and as he said after the game “you have to laugh at these retards”. Unfortunately, little is ever done about these racist incidents and there seem to be too many in authority who seem to think that if Alves has taken it in good humour then everything is okay.
Three minutes after the equalizer Barça scored the winner. Busquets had an excellent second half and his surge forward and clever scooped pass over the defence gave Fabregas the chance to head the ball across for Messi to sweep the ball home right-footed. There was still time for a scare when the referee Fernandez Borbalán appeared to signal a Villarreal penalty after his linesman had flagged a disputable foul by Busquets on Aquino on the edge of the area. Busquets was booked in the confusion but there was relief for Barça when the ref finally awarded a free-kick which the defence cleared.
After the pain of the last few days the players deserved this win. It wasn’t the best of performances but it must have been very difficult to find the motivation to play in the first place. The reaction to going 2-0 down was creditable and despite the luck involved in the two own-goals I prefer to see it as reward for Alves’s perseverance. Winning the league still looks very unlikely with the two Madrid teams better placed, but while there is still a chance, as Mascherano says, we must fight to the end.