Lionel Messi’s sublime free kick salvaged Barcelona a 1-1 draw with Villarreal on Sunday but left the Catalans potentially eight points behind Real Madrid.
Luis Enrique made the bold decisions of benching Jordi Alba benched and dropping Ivan Rakitic, amidst speculation that the midfielder’s omission was related to him being on the verge of a move to Manchester City.
This was also the first official match to be played at Villarreal’s stadium since it was renamed La Ceramica from El Madrigal.
Nonetheless, Neymar – without a goal since mid-October – latched onto a flicked through ball but could only fling his finish into Sergio Asenjo’s palms.
Straight at the other end, Jaume Costa picked out Jonathan dos Santos at the back stick, but the former Barca midfielder blazed over from close range.
Alexandre Pato then shimmied past both Sergi Roberto and Andre Gomes down the left, but his cutback for a certain Jonathan goal was just about intercepted by Lucas Digne.
Just four minutes into the second half, a classic counterattack saw Villarreal break from Digne’s pullback drifting into the abyss, Pato then releasing Nicola Sansone and the Italian firing an angled finish across Ter Stegen.
Neymar, meanwhile, continued to squander chances as he cut into the box from a free kick unmarked and let fly, only for his shot to be straight at Asenjo.
However, the game was suddenly thrown into disrepute when Messi had the ball in Villarreal’s box and was clearly stopped by Bruno Soriano’s extended arm along the ground. The referee, despite being a matter of yards away, remarkably ignored the Argentine’s appeals.
It was then the Yellow Submarine’s turn to see a penalty waved away as Javier Mascherano blocked a shot with his hand, although the Argentine was directly in front of the attempt.
Barca belatedly began threatening Asenjo in the final 15 minutes as Messi clipped Asenjo’s goal with a curling strike, before the latter pushed Suarez’s powerful drive away.
Just when it looked like Villarreal had lost concentration for a split-second, Mateo Musacchio and Asenjo failing to communicate when the defender headed a high ball up into the air, the profligate Neymar had his volleyed rebound blocked.
Yet justice seemed to have been served from a Barca point of view on the cusp of injury time through no-one else but Messi, who buried a free kick into the top-left corner of Asenjo’s net.
Villarreal ended the game with 10 men due to Jaume Costa’s dismissal for two bookable offences, but Barca were unable to find the elusive winning goal.
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Costa sent off 90 (V)