Villareal, with the best defense in La Liga, hosted Barcelona, with the best offense in La Liga, on Sunday. The match was complicated from the beginning, but it proved to be even more so as the game went on.
Luis Enrique made some changes to the side that went against Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday. Lucas Digne was put in place of Jordi Alba. Ivan Rakitić was left out of the team for “tactical reasons” for André Gomes, and Samuel Umtiti was replaced by Javier Mascherano. The decision to leave out Rakitić was met with questioning, especially with the defensive work he does in the midfield. Perhaps Gomes was to have added more offense versus the formidable defense of Villareal.
Villareal’s speedy Alexandre Pato and Nicola Sansone were taking advantage of their great defense to leak out on the break and counterattack rapidly. They threatened Marc-André ter Stegen several times in the first half as Gerard Piqué seemed to have taken a knock to the ankle. He seemed to be limping quite a bit, but his condition improved as the match went on.
Barcelona’s offense was producing, but this game showed just why Villareal’s defense is so highly regarded. Their anticipation of passes and shot attempts led to many interceptions of the ball. When the midfield players did receive it, they had very little space with which to work. Remember how the decision to play Gomes was questionable? Well, it certainly came up during the game. Gomes was often slow to pass, preferring instead to hold the ball for too long. This resulted, of course, in the ball being taken, and another Villareal break.
While the MSN was getting their shots up, they failed to hit the mark in the first half. They again showed a tendency, especially Neymar and Luis Suárez, to pass the ball instead of shoot. Neymar alone had two opportunities in the first half, but instead lifted a pass to Lionel Messi. The defense of Villareal would have none of that, though, clearing the ball away each time. At the half, the score was 0-0.
In the second half, Villareal would strike first, in the 50th minute. After another break, the ball was picked up by Pato at midfield, who threaded a ball through Mascherano and Pique to Sansone, who fired a low shot to the far post. It was telling that Neymar was the closest player to the ball, as Piqué was still hindered by the ankle and Mascherano simply wasn’t quick enough. ter Stegen could do nothing as the goal was scored.
The second half was again controversial as Messi’s shot was deflected by Bruno Soriano’s arm. As he lay sprawled on the ground, he put his right arm in the path of the ball, causing it to deflect out of bounds. Another uncalled penalty. On the other end, just a few moments later, Mascherano put his arm out to block a shot, but nothing was called there either. No handball on either side. At least the referee was fair in not calling anything.
Messi once again saved catalan hearts as his free kick in the 89th minute left Sergio Asenjo, the keeper, guessing. As he dived to block, Messi aimed towards the other side, away from the wall, putting it in the back of the net. With this, the score was 1-1, and it would end the same way. A tie was not disastrous for Barcelona, but it wasn’t good either.
Several questions were raised by this match. For starters, what’s Luis Enrique’s strategy? Why bench Rakitić? Gomes, frankly didn’t have a good game. We’ve seen instances in the past where Luis Enrique leaves players out of the squad for seemingly no reason (Arda Turan, Aleix Vidal) and while he’s proved to be a great coach, his motives are somewhat questionable. Additionally, the MSN are great friends and all, but they do have a tendency to overpass. Several golden opportunities were wasted against a Villareal team that is great at intercepting passes.
And finally, and probably most frustrating for fans, what’s going on with the penalty situation? Over the past 2 games, 3 (maybe 4) clear penalties have been denied Barcelona, and it’s beginning to raise some questions. All this, coupled with Villareal’s technical greatness defensively (yes, they’re something special) and their exploitation of the counterattack led to a draw. Not as bad as it could have been, but it definitely left a lot to be desired.