A festive atmosphere enveloped the Camp Nou on Saturday evening as the boys of the Blaugrana celebrated their unprecedented six-trophy year with their Barça faithful. Villarreal was a mere afterthought as the Barcelona players deservedly received their plaudits for a year of literal perfection. Even Villarreal showed them respect before the match when they created a tunnel for Barcelona to run through as the Villarreal players clapped and appreciated their host’s achievements. When referee Bernardino González Vázquez blew his whistle to commence the game, however, the lovefest ceased, and Villarreal showed Barcelona and those watching in the stands and through their televisions why they have been a European force in the last six years.
Manager Pep Guardiola gave Lionel Messi the day off, as Pep gave him some extra vacation time. Messi was there for the celebration, but he had just arrived from Argentina, and he was not match-fit. Jonathan dos Santos played in Messi’s place, and it was his first start for the senior team. For Villarreal, Ernesto Valverde left Giuseppe Rossi on the bench in favor of Nilmar as the lone striker, and he gave David Fuster only his third start of the season and positioned him just behind Nilmar.
When Barcelona scored in the seventh minute, there was a sense of a blowout as the feelings of euphoria brought about from the pregame fiesta carried into the opening minutes of the match. The goal came from a typical Barça move. In the final third of the pitch, Xavi Hernández played a diagonal ball to Dani Alves deep down the right flank. Alves did well to whip in a cross into the middle of the penalty area. The ball bounced in the box and into the vicinity of Thierry Henry. The cross was a little behind Henry, but leaning on his left foot, he unleashed a half-volley missile that rocked the crossbar. Pedro Rodríguez was alert, kept himself onside before Henry’s shot, and slotted home the rebound coolly to give his team the 1-0 lead.
If there is a criticism to be laid upon Barcelona this season, they have tended to start slowly in their matches, but with the quick goal against Villarreal, it would not have been unusual for Barcelona to get the second and third goals in quick succession. Marcos Senna and Villarreal made sure that the seventh minute would be the only one conceded on this night.
Barcelona had their chances in the first half to add a second goal, including a sitter from twelve yards that Zlatan Ibrahimovic failed to get on target and a Henry header that flew over the crossbar in the 45th minute, but Ernesto Valverde employed tactics that few managers embarked on against Barcelona. Villarreal played how Barça plays against all of their opponents: ball possession, a high defensive line, and constant pressure on the ball.
For all the recognition that Barcelona receives for their flowing, attacking style, their unending and unrelenting energy on defense is arguably the most important aspect in their six-trophy season. Many teams sit back in their own half of the field and hope for a quick counter-attack against Barcelona, and this is why Barcelona has sixty-five to seventy-five percent of the possession in each match. Valverde knew that this type of strategy would only lead to their demise, so when Barça was on the ball, a Villarreal player or two would immediately shift towards that man. Barcelona was not used to this type of pressure put upon them, and it led to more turnovers in midfield and in their own third of the field.
Obviously, with this Barça tactic, a team has to have the players that can execute this game plan. Clubs like Xerez and Málaga could not play the way that Villarreal did against Barcelona due to a lack of quality players, but with Marcos Senna and Bruno Soriano providing the steel in the midfield, and the attacking quartet of Cani, David Fuster, Santi Cazorla, and Nilmar working tirelessly to retrieve possession immediately after losing it, they out-Barça-ed Barça for a majority of the match. The statistics would not necessarily support this statement, as Barcelona had a 60-40 ratio of possession in their favor, but the 60% is a low number for them, and many observing the game could see that Villarreal rattled their cage that slight bit, and Barcelona hardly had to cope with this throughout the season.
David Fuster made the most of his rare start by roaming around in his free role behind the striker and disrupting the normally tight Barcelona defense. In the 28th minute, Cani crossed into the area near the end line, and Fuster flew from the penalty spot and nodded down a header that, ironically, he hit too hard. Always taught to bring the header down, Fuster did exactly that, but it bounced off the turf and over the crossbar.
Eventually, Fuster’s presence in the Barcelona half of the field turned to gold in the 51st minute, when he converted after numerous chances to equalize earlier in the match. Villarreal maintained a spell of possession in the final third, and when Nilmar’s shot was blocked, the move looked to be over, but Cani was first to the ball and provided sweet service to Fuster at the back post, where he perfected a technically difficult half-volley across goal and past Victor Valdés into the back of the net.
Barcelona stemmed Villarreal’s momentum when Andrés Iniesta came in for the largely ineffective Jonathan dos Santos in the 58th minute. Dos Santos showed flashes of his enormous talent, but he was overmatched on this night, and his 19-year-old legs will see much better days. Two minutes into Iniesta’s shift, Pedro played a skillful pullback to him around the 18-yard penalty line, but the pass was a little behind Iniesta, so he could not take the shot first-time. Iniesta took a touch and shot an off-balanced effort that Diego López handled easily.
López nearly paid for a poor goal clearance in the 65th minute, when Iniesta reclaimed possession and curled a wonderful shot toward the top right corner of the net, but López made a soaring save to tip it around the goal. The match ultimately finished 1-1, with Villarreal fully deserving a share of the spoils.
Villarreal has the reputation of playing pretty, passing football but not necessarily having the physicality needed throughout a long campaign. They committed fifteen fouls as well as suffering twenty-two fouls against Barcelona, so at least for this match, they were not afraid to go into challenges and be fully committed to the job. Iván Marcano and Diego Godín were stellar in central defense as they closed down Xavi and Ibrahimovic. They frustrated Ibrahimovic, and this frustration boiled over when Ibrahimovic received a yellow card in the 88th minute for a late tackle on Godín.
A controversial no-call on a penalty claim by Nilmar on a clumsy Carles Puyol challenge may have given Villarreal all three points, but even though they earned only the solitary point, they know now that their poor early-season form was not a sign of future play. Moral victories do not mean much in terms of position in the league, and Villarreal remains ninth in the table, eight points behind the final Champions League spot. If they remain healthy in the midfield with Bruno, Santi Cazorla, and their inspirational captain Marcos Senna, their overall ability should see them rise into the European spots by the end of the season.