Barça took a big step towards a fifth Copa del Rey final in the last seven years with a 3-1 semi-final first leg win over Villarreal at Camp Nou. Leo Messi fired Barça ahead in the 41st minute but a mistake from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen allowed Manu Trigueros to equalize early in the second half. An inspired Andrés Iniesta shot Barça straight back into the lead and Gerard Piqué completed the scoring in the 64th minute, heading in from Messi’s corner.
Luis Enrique made four changes to the team that won 2-5 at San Mames. Ter Stegen replaced Bravo in goal and Mascherano, Rafinha and Iniesta came in for Busquets, Rakitic and Xavi to give three pairs of fresh legs to the midfield. The effect was the team maintained the high intensity of recent weeks with Mascherano and Iniesta both impressing with their recuperation work which made it very difficult for Villarreal to get out of their own half.
While Barça demonstrated excellent work in winning the ball back, the visitors also impressed when they lost possession, defending in numbers to allow very few spaces to Barça’s forwards. As in the league encounter Neymar had little luck against Mario while Luis Suárez got little change from Musacchio in the early exchanges. Messi forced the first save of the game from Asenjo with a deflected shot in the 12th minute then four minutes later he sent Alba charging in on the left with the help of Iniesta’s dummy, but after going past Mario Alba’s cross was just too high for Suárez.
Barça were moving the ball well but failing to find the final pass, with Suárez arriving just to late for Messi’s cross from the right. Then when a shooting chance arrived Messi mis-hit his volley from Alba’s cross. Neymar had been relatively quiet but after a short corner in the 28th minute he sent a superb pass through to Iniesta who cut inside Bruno before knocking the ball back to Messi who blazed his shot disappointingly over. Bruno was injured as he tried to stop Iniesta and had to be replaced by Trigueros.
It was tight and intricate as Barça tried to find a way through. Rafinha made a nimble-footed dribble into the area but Mathieu had strayed offside so his goal was ruled out. It was beginning to look a bit frustrating but then four minutes before half-time Barça’s energetic pressing game earned its reward. Neymar and Iniesta closed in on Pina forcing the midfielder into an underhit pass back to Musacchio, Suárez continued the chase and when Musacchio hesitated Suárez robbed him and burst into the area, as Asenjo moved out to close the angle Suárez slipped the ball inside to Messi who swept the ball home from 12 yards.
Barça pushed for a second before the break in a tremendous five-minute spell. Messi showed remarkably quick thinking to send a pass into Suárez but the Uruguayan pulled his shot past the far post. Neither Neymar nor Suárez could get a foot to divert Iniesta’s low drive across the goalmouth. Then Alves sent a clever chip into Suárez and after Musacchio got his foot to the ball Messi clipped it into the side-netting. It was all Barça now but then two minutes into injury time Vietto, Giovani and Cheryshev combined in an excellent counter-attack, Cheryshev’s low cross from the left found Vietto who shot from close in but Ter Stegen dived magnificently to his left to touch the ball past the post.
The German keeper would not be so inspired in the second half. Villarreal won a couple of corners soon after the restart and when the second was cleared as far as Suárez the striker tried to lay the ball off but Trigueros anticipated the move, interceped the ball and advanced a few yards before letting fly with a shot that swerved in the air but Ter Stegen completely misread it and ended up missing his attempted punch as the ball whistled past into the net.
An away goal was the last thing Camp Nou wanted to see but there was little time to consider the consequences as Barça went back in front a minute later. Again the high press was decisive with Iniesta winning the ball back near Villarreal’s area. After exchanging passes with Suárez, Iniesta again tried to play in the Uruguayan, Mario stuck his foot in but the ball came back to Iniesta who fired his shot inside the far post.
Barça were dominating again with Mascherano mopping up any Villarreal breakaway. Only Suárez’s continued lack of luck in front of goal prevented further goals as he headed over from Alves’s cross and then saw his shot deflected wide, again after good work from the Brazilian full-back. Eventually, Barça’s insistance paid off when Piqué escaped Musacchio’s attention to head in Messi’s inswinging corner at the far post.
Rakitic came on for Rafinha and soon after Barça should have made it four-one when Musacchio was penalised for an unfortunate hand-ball. For some reason Messi allowed Neymar to take the penalty and despite an over-elaborate run-up from the Brazilian his shot was without conviction and Asenjo guessed right and saved.
For the remaining minutes Barça seemed more concerned with maintaining the 3-1 scoreline than with pushing for a fourth. Villarreal looked for their second which would have made a big difference to the return game at El Madrigal on March 4 but Giovani missed two headers and Mathieu made an important block to thwart Vietto. However, Barça never looked under too much pressure and we were well deserving of the final scoreline. Suárez came close in injury time with a shot from inside the centre circle but the ball curled just wide after beating Asenjo.
We can be very satisfied with the performance and result tonight and there is definitely a growing optimism that we can win some silverware this season. If we can continue playing with this intensity until the end of the season then we will be difficult to stop. The only slight concern is the momentary lapses like Piqué’s against Villarreal in the league and Ter Stegen’s today. It may not matter much when we score three or more at the other end but we may not find scoring so easy in the later stages of the Champions League and we can little afford to concede such goals then.
Barça: Ter Stegen 5.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 7.5, Mathieu 6.5, Alba 7; Rafinha 7 (Rakitic m68, 7), Mascherano 7.5, Iniesta 8; Messi 7.5, Suárez 7, Neymar 6.
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Johnathan (Rukavina m53), Bruno (Trigueros m33), Pina, Cheryshev (Moi Gomez m73); Vietto, Giovani.
Goals: m41 Messi 1-0, m48 Trigueros 1-1, m49 Iniesta 2-1, m64 Piqué 3-1.
Yellow cards: m66 Pina, m70 Ruiz, m70 Musacchio, m86 Suárez.