It was tight and at times it was frenetic, but Barça earned an extremely sweet three points tonight with a 0-1 victory at Villarreal thanks to an 82nd minute goal from 19-year-old substitute Sandro Ramírez. Barça’s victory was thoroughly deserved despite a terrific effort from the home team, the posts were hit twice at both ends in a magnificent contest but Barça had Leo Messi who was captain for the game and he provided Sandro with the late winner.
If anybody was in doubt, Luis Enrique’s team selection demonstrated again that he has no fear of putting in youngsters. As they say in Spanish El tio tiene cojones. Despite the absence of Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta the new Barça coach left both Xavi and Neymar on the bench in order to give another start to Rafinha and Munir. The effect was a highly impressive pressing game that kept Villarreal pinned back for long periods.
Barça began very strongly with Munir firing wide from Rakitic’s corner in the second minute, then soon after, Pedro found Messi on the edge of the box but the Argentinian swiped his shot straight at Villarreal keeper Sergio Asenjo. Rakitic fired one over from 25 yards then in the 15th minute a Pedro got through on the left with a neat step-over but his shot was spectacularly stopped one-handed by the diving Asenjo.
There had been very little from Villarreal going forward, then in the 23rd minute ex-blaugrana Giovani dos Santos took a short corner from the right and when Cani played the ball back the Mexican swung in a dangerous cross but Victor Ruiz, arriving at the far post, could only thigh the ball over the bar. Almost immediately after Pedro might have had a penalty at the other end but referee Velasco Carballo didn’t see or chose to ignore the knee-to-knee contact from Villarreal right back Mario.
Barça continued to have the better of the game but with Villarreal well organised in a defensively compact and narrow 4-3-3 the option of looking for the tireless Alves on the right was used more and more. Alves’s crossing was generally pretty good all night, though with only the small Barça forwards to look for, it wasn’t easy with Villarreal defending competently. Barça came closest to a first-half goal in the 27th minute when Alves was brought down by Cani on the right egde of the area. Messi’s free kick took a deflection off Manu Trigueras and Asenjo had to react brilliantly to stick out a hand and turn the ball against the post.
Barça continued with the high pressing game with even Messi again chasing opponents down. Pedro and Munir never stopped working while Rakitic and Rafinha added energy to the midfield. However, the odd pass went astray and the occasional control was missed as it is clear these players have had little time to form understandings. The chances dried up during the last fifteen minutes of the half, one corner reached Mathieu but he drove wide from twenty yards, and a stretching Munir couldn’t get enough on his header from Messi’s cross. The half ended with Alves losing his cool with the Velasco Carballo after receiving a painful-looking challenge from Jaume Costa, Alves pulled his shorts up to show the studmarks in his backside but the referee showed Alves a yellow card as it wasn’t the first time the Brazilian had protested his decisions.
Barça were very solid without being brilliant in the first half. The workrate had been excellent but the pace was about to increase after the break. Barça began again in control but when Villarreal got the ball they aimed to hit ‘the-zone-left-by-Alves’ with more effect. Piqué, Busquets and Rakitic had covered the Brazilian’s surges forward very well in the first half but in the 49th minute Cherychev kept Piqué at bay but then sent his cross/shot straight at the well-position Claudio Bravo. Then two minutes later Cani found Trigueras in the same zone and a low cross looking for Giovani forced Mathieu to lunge in and hit the ball back against his own post.
Barça’s high-energy press began to drop in intensity which allowed Villarreal to begin to show spells of good possession. Luis Enrique withdrew the tiring Munir and brought on Neymar with half an hour remaining and the Brazilian came close to making an immediate impact with a lovely touch in a flowing move involving Rakitic and Messi though after Neymar sent Rakitic into the area the Croatian midfielder’s cross was blocked.
Barça were looking back in control though the sense of danger of a Villarreal breakaway goal remained. Messi fired a free-kick from 30 yards that saw Asenjo again fly spectacularly to touch the ball out though the shot was already curling wide of the post. Then in the 68th minute Alves sent a long ball from the Barça half for Messi to chase down the right, the Argentinian looked for Neymar in the middle but his cross was half-intercepted by the falling Victor Ruiz, the ball still arrived to Neymar three yards out but his shot was blocked by Ruiz who had fallen in just the right place to prevent the goal.
Luis Enrique’s second substitution was to bring on Sandro in place of Pedro. The youngster had a shot blocked soon after coming on following a good combination between Messi and Neymar, the ball rebounded out to Alves who sent in a fine cross but Neymar blazed over from 12 yards. This was followed shortly after by Villarreal’s best chance of the game, Mathieu made a poor headed clearance that fell to Pina who cracked a shot against Bravo’s left-hand post, the ball flew out, behind the diving Bravo out to Vietto on the left who fizzed a low shot back in which Bravo did superbly to touch across the goal and away.
Xavi replaced Rafinha with sixteen minutes remaining and Barça continued to push for the victory. Alves found Messi fourteen yards out but his shot took a deflection off a defender before clipping off the outside of the post. It was beginning to look desperate and either side might have won it in the end. Barça’s hard work finally found its reward in the 82nd minute after another good connection between Neymar and Messi. The Brazilian spotted the gap for the pass and the Argentinian latched on to the ball and held his nerve against Asenjo to work the gap and send the ball across the goalmouth where Sandro beat Mario to claim his first official first-team goal.
Villarreal tried to respond with a couple of quick shots from Vietto and Trigueras that missed the target. There was a couple of final scares for Barça, first after Mathieu hit his clearance straight at Busquets and the ball flew to Vietto ten yards out, fortunately for Mathieu the Villarreal substitute blazed his shot wide. Then Giovani sent a dangerous ball across the Barça goalmouth but Vietto couldn’t arrive. Neymar might have added to the score at the other end after another good cross from Alves but his header was poor and flew well over.
If Sandro hadn’t grabbed the winner we might have heard some murmurs over Luis Enriqué’s team selection. It would have been unfair. Whether we won or not tonight the impression left by the team was excellent while the message left by the new coach’s decision to play Rafinha and Munir will create an even more competitive atmosphere in the changing room. If Lucho can control the egos, the fight for a place in the team will mean the squad trains with the all-important intensity necessary to make champions. Even though it can’t be said that Rafinha and Munir had the best of games, they both contributed excellently in Barça’s pressing game. Luis Enriqué should also be applauded for his decision to play Piqué who responded with a very solid game that suggests he means what he says about getting back to the top of his game. The only mild worry from tonight comes from the two poor clearances from Mathieu which could have been costly. The Frenchman has looked pretty impressive since signing and his physical presence definitely helps in both penalty areas though he still leaves me with a slight fear that he is about to do something clumsy.
It is early days in the Luis Enrique era but I’m getting very good sensations. News of Real Madrid’s defeat at Real Sociedad is now in (0-2 up and they lose 4-2!!) making it a very happy international break for culés everywhere.
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Victor Ruiz, Jaume Costa (Gabriel m59); Bruno, Pino, Trigueras; Cherychev, Giovani, Cani (Espinosa m69).
Barça: Bravo 7; Alves 7.5, Piqué 8, Mathieu 6, Alba 7; Rakitic 7, Busquets 8, Rafinha 6.5 (Xavi m74, 7); Pedro 7 (Sandro m70, 7), Messi 8.5, Munir 6 (Neymar m59, 7).
Goal: m82 Sandro 0-1.
Yellow card: m42 Alves