Struggling Real Madrid risk falling further behind in La Liga after a cheeky late chip from Pablo Fornals saw Villarreal escape with a 1-0 win on Saturday, their first ever victory at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Fornals struck with three minutes left to leave Zinedine Zidane’s wasteful side fourth and a whopping 16 points behind runaway league leaders Barcelona, a deficit which will turn into 19 should Barca win at Real Sociedad on Sunday.
Villarreal meanwhile move up to fifth on 31 points thanks to midfielder Fornals’ stunning goal, which puts Javier Calleja’s side just a point behind off-form Madrid.
Fornals was on hand for the away side just after it looked like Enes Unal had fluffed his team’s chance after a blistering counter-attack following a Real Madrid corner.
Turk Unal shot straight at Keylor Navas when put through by Denis Cheryshev, but with Navas still recovering from making the save Fornals lifted the ball over the flailing Madrid stopper.
So often Real’s saviour, Ronaldo had a bad day at the office, with his worst miss coming just before half-time, when the five-time Ballon d’Or winner managed to shoot straight at Sergio Asenjo after being laid on by Isco in front of a practically open goal just yards out.
The Portuguese was livid with the referee, as he thought that he was tripped by Daniele Bonera just before he shot.
Real dominated the second period, but after failing to break down the resolute visitors, Fornals stepped up to make history and pile the pressure on Zidane.
Barcelona have made huge investment this season with the acquisitions of Nelson Semedo, Paulinho, Ousmane Dembele, Gerard Deulofeu, Philippe Coutinho and Yerry Mina.
Although the Catalan giants are currently nine points ahead of Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga, there is still scope to purchase new players if some of the current crop fail to raise their form.
Ernesto Valverde’s side have not been afraid to spend money with some €328m lavished on stars since the start of the summer.
Here, we take a look at three of the best and worst performing players.
BEST PERFORMING THREE
A class act.
The Argentine has been in instrumental form this term, scoring 16 goals and providing seven assists in 18 matches.
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is truly one of a kind and has delivered telling performances consistently, most notably in Barcelona’s win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu last month.
Messi is a composed presence on and off the ball, and is without doubt the key man for Valverde’s side as they continue to complete strongly on all fronts this season.
The Spaniard is having the season of his life at the Camp Nou.
The 28-year-old, who has made an average of 1.9 tackles and two interceptions per match, perhaps goes under the radar compared to bigger name stars but his influence is top draw.
Incredibly, Alba has assisted Messi on six occasions this season – more than any other combination in Europe’s top five leagues.
His most notable displays have been against Villarreal and Levante.
Looked a poor replacement for Neymar back in August, but the Brazilian has surprised many with a series of swashbuckling displays.
Some Barca fans may have questioned his €40m fee after plying his trade in the Chinese Super League for two seasons and a disappointing stint at Tottenham.
However, his physicality provides Barcelona with an added defensive layer and he also offers pace and a crisp passing ability in attack.
His most significant contributions were starring displays against Leganes, Celta Vigo and Levante.
WORST PERFORMING THREE
Apart from one strong performance against Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League, the Portuguese has struggled for form under Valverde.
The central midfielder arrived at the Camp Nou in 2016 with aspirations that he could one day fill the void left by Andres Iniesta.
But he’s not come close to Iniesta’s industrious abilities and looks an unreliable and loose presence in midfield – with rumours he could leave during the January window.
Having made just two La Liga starts this term, the 24-year-old has failed to usurp the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets who continue to have a stranglehold over the midfield.
The Spaniard has fallen out of favour under Valverde with just 10 La Liga appearances this campaign – seven of which have come from the bench.
With the recent arrival of Coutinho, it looks an even tougher task for him to force a way back into the starting XI.
At 28, it would be a good move to leave the Camp Nou in order to get his career back on track.
Valencia, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid have all raised interest in the Spaniard who can play anywhere down the right flank.
Although he is one of Valverde’s most trusted lieutenants, there is no guarantee he will start when Coutinho returns to full fitness at the end of the month.
If the Barca boss is to drop one of his midfielders, it is likelier to be the Croatian international over the likes of Andres Iniesta, Paulinho and Sergio Busquets.
Since the arrival of the Brazilian last week, the 29-year-old is believed to be exploring his options with Juventus, Arsenal and Liverpool also interested in securing his services.
Rakitic has provided three assists in 16 La Liga starts this term.
Lionel Messi is the only player in the world who should command a transfer fee of more than €100 million, according to 1990 FIFA World Cup winner Rudi Voller.
With the likes of Neymar, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho all well and truly smashing that transfer fee barrier following their respective moves since August, Voller feels Barcelona legend Messi stands alone in being the one man who would be worth such a high price-tag.
The Argentine great, widely regarded as the best best player of all time, has of course never been subject to a big transfer before having spent his entire career with Blaugrana after rising up through the La Masia youth ranks.
“For me, there is only one player worth more than €100m, and of course that is Lionel Messi,” Voller, who scored 47 goals in 90 appearances for Germany, told Suddeutsche Zeitung.
However, he added: “But I’ve grown used to being amazed.”
PSG forward Kylian Mbappe, come the summer, is likely to become the latest player to fetch a huge price in the region of €155m should PSG exercise their first option agreement with Monaco.