Luis Suarez produced an astounding half-volley to earn La Liga champions Barcelona an unforgettable 4-4 draw and break the hearts of relegation-threatened Villarreal.
Lionel Messi, Ivan Rakitic and Gerard Pique all started from the bench as the holders looked to manage a frantic fixture list. Head coach Ernesto Valverde’s calculated gamble appeared to have paid off when Brazilian winger Malcom teed up countryman Philippe Coutinho for a tap-in and then the former headed home to make it 2-0 by 16 minutes.
The Yellow Submarine, however, kept pouncing on the counter-attack against a bedraggled back line. Nigeria winger Samuel Chukwueze’s composed rebound and Cameroon striker Karl Toko Ekambi’s cheeky cross-shot made it 2-2 by 50 minutes, while ruthlessly dispatched one-on-ones from midfielder Vicente Iborra and replacement Carlos Bacca made it 4-2 with 10 minutes left.
A red card for centre-back Alvaro Gonzalez then handed Barca hope. Substitute Messi reduced the disparity with a perfect free-kick that crashed in off the post during the 90th minute, with Uruguay hit man Suarez’s definitive final touch of an enthralling contest granting a share of the spoils.
Here are the Barca player ratings from Estadio de la Ceramica:
Marc-Andre ter Stegen 7: Barca’s experimental backline should have been breached several more times. Was embarrassed by Toko Ekambi, however.
Sergi Roberto 4: Played key role in opening goal, but struggled to contain surprisingly buoyant hosts.
Samuel Umtiti 3: A shadow of the centre-back he was last term. Regularly caught out of position. The knee injury has made him half the player. Could not keep pace with Bacca at end.
Clement Lenglet 4: Looked across and did not see Gerard Pique. His usual assuredness deserted him for Chukwueze’s strike.
Jordi Alba 4: Given a real going over by the effervescent Chukwueze. A rare night of strife in a season of success.
Arturo Vidal 5: A battle that the Chile warrior could not win. Failed to plug gaps vacated by Barca’s brittle defence.
Sergio Busquets 5: Another who floundered at Estadio de la Ceramica. Made only one interception all evening. All that possession, but nothing to show for it.
Arthur 5: The Brazil midfielder started brightly and then faded badly. Didn’t do enough damage with ball, doesn’t possess physicality to hamper rapier opponents.
Malcom 7: A breakthrough performance seemed to be unfolding during a first half that contained a fine assist and lovely goal. Second half was less impressive, but Messi’s stand-in for the night may have jumped forwards in the queue.
Luis Suarez 7: Perfect half-volley in second-half stoppage time broke Villarreal hearts and made it 18 La Liga matches without defeat.
Philippe Coutinho 7: Similar tale to countryman Malcom. His enormous price tag, however, necessitates a grasping of responsibility. This did not happen.
Lionel Messi 8: Divine free-kick on the stroke of injury time sparked hope of a salvage job. Previously, fortunate to just see yellow for dissent.
Ivan Rakitic 7: Croatia midfielder was sorely missed from the start.
Carles Alena 6: Handful of touches in, approximately, 20 minutes on the pitch.
It’s that time of the season when the fixture-congestion kicks in and bagging three points in the simplest of fixtures could prove to be a huge ask.
Luckily for La Liga champions Barcelona, they find themselves in a very good position in the table as they enter the penultimate month of the season.
With nine games left, the Catalans are on top and enjoy a 10-point lead over Atletico Madrid.
Their next challenge in the league takes the form of Villarreal – a team that finds itself hovering above the relegation zone, having accumulated just one point more than 18th-placed Celta Vigo. We take a look at the talking points ahead of this mid-week clash.
More minutes for Malcom
Malcom has been a victim of questionable rotation policies governed by head coach Ernesto Valverde.
Phiippe Coutinho – despite his poor form for majority of the season – is still preferred over his countryman.
With Ousmane Dembele still nursing an injury, one of the Brazilians is bound to start. Malcom has to be the ideal choice, given his promising cameo in Barcelona’s win over Espanyol where he bagged an assist.
Although the former Bordeaux winger has been provided limited playing time, he has done well to make a case for why he deserved more minutes.
Whether it was a brilliant goal at Inter Milan in the Champions League at a time the team were struggling to get past Samir Handanovic or a fantastic effort to level the scores in the first leg of El Clasico in the Copa del Rey two months ago, Malcom has shown that he is capable of being a direct threat to the opposition.
This is exactly what Barcelona need right now – someone who can provide a moment of individual brilliance and reduce the burden on Lionel Messi. The Argentina forward is stretching his injured groin muscles and luck to the limits, playing with pain from the last four months and is in desperate need of some rest.
Clearly, Malcom is a must on the team-sheet for Barcelona on Tuesday.
Shuffling at the back
Samuel Umtiti plays for Barcelona? The fact that Clement Lenglet has performed so well that Umtiti’s absence was barely noticeable is a huge testament to his successful debut season at the Catalan club.
Not taking anything away from Umtiti who is a world-class defender himself, his countryman seems to be in better form heading into the business end of the season. At this point, Lenglet is clearly the better option for a crunch fixture.
Barcelona are two games and one week away from their biggest game of the season (yet). The Spanish giants travel to Manchester to take on United in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Rotations in defence will be extremely crucial, should Barcelona overcome all the challenges in their path. They could start by resting Lenglet for the next two games and have him fresh for the United fixture.
The Frenchman had dropped a masterclass for Sevilla when his former team eliminated United from the competition last season.
It’s fair to say that among the players on Barcelona’s roster, the centre-back is the one who is fresh from experiencing a crucial tie at Old Trafford. This is bound to provide the youngster an edge when he takes the brunt of United’s attack a week from now.
Point-hungry Villarreal could spell danger
At this point of the season, the teams in danger of relegation are more dangerous than the ones at the top of the table.
While the latter fight for a European spot, the former fight for survival in the top flight.
After a horrible start to their campaign, Villarreal have – to an extent – steadied their ship after Javier Calleja took over as manager. They have now won three of their last six games, after going 10 games without a win.
However, a defeat to lowly Celta Vigo last week completely changes the perspective of the relegation battle. Celta are now just one point behind Villarreal and are presented with a chance to escape the relegation zone on Wednesday.
Hence, the pressure is back on Villarreal and it’s safe to say that they will do anything to bag all three points on Tuesday, regardless of the opposition.
Barcelona will face a stern test and Valverde could probably have to think twice about his rotations.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde believes there is still “a lot of rowing to be done” before his side can contemplate being crowned LaLiga champions.
The Blaugrana cemented their 10-point lead at the top of the table with a 2-0 home win over city rivals Espanyol on Saturday.
Valverde’s side face relegation battlers Villarreal on Tuesday night in the next step of what is viewed as a procession towards the title and a potential domestic double.
Champions League ambitions are also still very much alive heading into a quarter-final showdown against Manchester United, as Barcelona look to close in on a memorable end to the campaign.
Valverde, though, is not about to allow anyone to get ahead of themselves.
“There are nine games left in LaLiga. If we win six, we are champions – but there is a lot of rowing to be done before that,” the Barca boss said at a press conference broadcast by the club.
“It’s not extra pressure, it’s a pressure we have because we want to get the title, just like the teams that chase us, the numbers are what they are.”
Valverde continued: “The three titles are equally close and far away, everything depends on small things, and we have not won yet, everything is yet to be decided.
“Since we started (the season), we have come a long way, (now) we are at the culminating moment.
“The players know, as I do, the difficulties that there are to win. They have lived this before, things are not certified until they are achieved.”
Despite Villarreal’s struggles at the wrong end of the table, Valverde will not take their challenge lightly.
He said: “Villarreal have played well against difficult opponents, they’re never an easy team to beat.
“In each match left, it is a kind of final for all, for us to be champions and them to get away from the bottom.”
Valverde hinted against making major changes, although admitted Lionel Messi, whose double on Saturday saw him surpass 40 goals in a season once again, could be given a breather.
“We have 10 days between now and our Champions League game (at Manchester United). It is not a case of wrapping the players up and protecting them. We need to keep competing at our consistent level,” he said.
“There is never a suitable scenario to rest a player like Leo, but we will see it tomorrow.”
Villarreal had been on a fine run in both the Europa League and domestically, with back-to-back wins boosting their survival bid before they lost 3-2 at Celta Vigo having been 2-0 up at half-time.
Javi Calleja wants his men to lift themselves once again.
“On Tuesday, we have a new match against Barcelona. We cannot throw away everything which we have achieved,” he said, quoted on the club website. “We have to go out and win against the leaders.”
Provided by Press Association Sport