Lionel Messi’s wonder strike on the hour mark earned Barcelona a 3-2 victory over Villarreal in the battle of La Liga’s form sides on Sunday.
Rafinha was preferred in central midfield to Ivan Rakitic, who was expected to retain his place from Wednesday’s win against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals, while usual League goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was back between the sticks, replacing Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Meanwhile for Villarreal, Coach Marcelino named a much-changed XI from the one which beat Getafe 1-0 midweek, with Jaume Costa, Mateo Musacchio, Bruno Soriano, Denis Cheryshev, Luciano Vietto and former Cules Jonathan dos Santos and his brother Giovani all entering the fold.
Unsurprisingly, it was the hosts who looked most likely to open the scoring. Luis Suarez was the fulcrum of Barca’s attacking play, linking up with teammates and coming close on a couple of occasions, only for his finishing to let him down at crucial moments.
The Yellow Submarine, on the other hand, were happy to play a narrow 4-4-2 formation and squeeze the middle of the pitch, and their efforts in weathering the Catalans’ storm was rewarded with the first goal, three-quarters of the way through the first half.
Mario Gaspar’s wayward shot on the edge of the box seemed destined for a Barca throw until Real Madrid loanee Denis Cheryshev stuck a boot out to divert the ball beyond Claudio Bravo.
However, Barca eventually made the breakthrough, with the interval fast approaching, as Neymar proved every inch the opportunist, sweeping home the rebound from Rafinha’s parried attempt.
The match then exploded into life after the restart, coinciding with Villarreal regaining their lead. A misjudgement from Gerard Pique near the halfway line allowed Giovani to dart his way into the Barca box and feed Luciano Vietto for a simple tap-in.
Nonetheless, La Blaugrana hit back almost immediately through Rafinha, who pounced on the loose ball from Asenjo’s save to deny Suarez and slammed the ball into the back of the net on the half-volley.
With the match finely poised, it was left for Messi to steal the points with a swish of his right boot. Receiving Suarez’s lay-off in the Villarreal D, the Argentine floated a spectacular finish into the top-left corner of Asenjo’s net.
The visitors then thought they had equalised from Ruiz’s acrobatic volley, only for it to be adjudged offside, before Neymar saw appeals for a penalty turned down immediately at the other end, despite Asenjo appearing to haul him down in the box.
Barcelona 3-2 Villarreal
Neymar 45, Rafinha 53, Messi 57 (B) Cheryshev 30, Vietto 51 (V)
Barcelona: Bravo; Alves, Pique, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets (Mathieu 71), Iniesta, Rafinha (Rakitic 88); Suarez (Pedro 79, Messi, Neymar
Villarreal: Asenjo; Mario, Musacchio, Ruiz, Costa; Bruno, Pina (Trigueros 76), Dos Santos (Gomez 84), Cheryshev; Vietto, Giovani
Referee: Bikandi Garrido