A select few matches each season define the league in terms of pecking order and/or overall footballing ability. Obviously, the two editions of El Clásico between Real Madrid and Barcelona usually determine the fate of La Liga’s crown. More specifically, in the past five seasons, the team that won the most points in El Clásico has gone on to win the league. There are thirty-six other matches, however, that both teams have to play that shape their seasons, and Barcelona hosting Villarreal on Saturday night was touted as that type of monumental match.
After Valencia has fallen by the way side from the top of the league after the October international break with one point out of a possible twelve, including an emotionally crushing 2-1 loss to Barcelona, the only team remaining that had any realistic chance of staying with the established duopoly was Villarreal.
The Yellow Submarine’s revival to their passing, flowing style under Juan Carlos Garrido coincided with positive results in the second half of last season and the third-place position they held coming into the Camp Nou on Saturday. Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar are developing a telepathic understanding with each other, Santi Cazorla has provided the creative influence in whatever position of the midfield he plays, and new addition Borja Valero allows Cazorla, Rossi, and Nilmar to roam if they want to with his steadying influence and ability to spray the ball around the park.
The knock with Villarreal falls on their mediocre away form. While they have achieved a perfect eight-for-eight at home in all competitions, including a 5-0-0 record in La Liga, Villarreal has only won two matches out of eight in all competitions away from El Madrigal, including a pedestrian 2-2-1 record in La Liga, a draw at lowly Segunda División B (third tier) side Polideportivo Ejido in the Copa del Rey, and losses in the UEFA Europa League at Dinamo Zagreb and PAOK, hardly considered as European powers.
While an average away form alongside their stellar home record will likely equal a top-four place and a spot in next year’s UEFA Champions League, it simply will not equal a top-two position, much less a league championship.
A win at the Camp Nou would not only jump Villarreal above Barcelona and temporarily tied with Real Madrid on top of the table, but it would send a significant message to Real and Barça that Villarreal is not merely a nice team that they would dismiss as a little engine that could but a legitimate threat to their increasingly cozy existence standing on top of Spanish football.
If Villarreal needed more confirmation that they could at least pull out a draw in Barcelona, they ride a three-match unbeaten streak at the Camp Nou, and both of Barça’s non-wins in La Liga have occurred at home.
Both teams predicate their games on ball possession and controlling how the match will play out. No matter how much Villarreal wants to keep the ball away from Barcelona, Barcelona will have at least 62% of possession or higher, so a sharpened and biting counter-attack is necessary if they wanted to pierce Barcelona in its side.
In the first twenty minutes of the match, Villarreal executed this strategy well with two separate counter-attacks that severely threatened Víctor Valdés’ goal. Barcelona’s defensive line played so high that they were near midfield when they had possession, so when Villarreal recuperated the ball, it did not take a brilliant pass to get behind the defense. Combined with a general lack of pace from the Barcelona defensive four, Giuseppe Rossi flew down the left wing to latch onto through balls in open space. To Barça’s credit, they recovered to quell the trouble both times, but Villarreal quickly identified how they were going to hurt Barcelona, and after David Villa scored the opening goal in the 22nd minute, Villarreal responded four minutes later with a Nilmar equalizer.
Nilmar’s ankle-breaking, sublime run through four or five Barça players and subsequent shot across the face of goal and past Valdés where it pinged off the right far post and into the net came as a result of Villarreal immediately attacking a forlorn Barça team after they were denied a second goal by the linesman’s offside flag. Just as Rossi caught the back four off-guard with his two runs behind them in the early stages of the match, Nilmar took advantage of a team that still had its mind on the shockingly erroneous offside call by the linesman, and in a flash, a 2-0 game became 1-1.
As Carlos Delgado Ferreiro blew his whistle for halftime, Villarreal could go into the dressing room with a fairly satisfied disposition because they fashioned five scoring opportunities to Barça’s three despite only possessing the ball 36% of the time. For the Barcelona players and the Culés in the stands, they beamed their frustrations straight at Delgado Ferreiro and his crew because of their poor performance in the opening forty-five minutes, denying a two-on-one situation with Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez that resulted in a goal along with other questionable calls that had the Barça supporters waving their white handkerchiefs in disgust.
When both sets of teams came out for the second half, Pep Guardiola brilliantly channeled his players’ anger at the referee into a productive yet effulgent display of football in the second half to see away their worthy adversaries, similar to Barcelona’s second-half performance against Valencia to terminate another pretender to the throne. Guardiola had his defense play a more conservative defensive line so that Villarreal could not run into open space like they did in the first half, and while Barcelona’s definition of “conservative” means holding their line at the edge of the center circle rather than at the halfway line, they effectively suppressed the Villarreal counter-attacking game with this tweak in defense.
This modification meant that Villarreal would have to create a build-up of passing football to penetrate the penalty area, a strategy with which Villarreal is highly capable, but Barcelona would not allow them to accomplish such a proposition because they kept the ball even better than they did in the first half. Even though the statistics show that Barcelona “only” had 68% of the possession in the second half, that percentage went down after Barcelona scored their third goal and sent in substitutes Adriano Correia and Javier Mascherano to finish off the match.
The other changes with Barcelona in the second half had nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with the luminosity, the splendor, and every other positive adjective to describe Lionel Messi. In perfect, synchronized amalgamation with Pedro, Barcelona’s second goal to regain the lead must go down as the goal of the season, and rather than wasting words on describing what happened, click on this to witness a universe-class event of understanding and trust between two players.
Messi would pounce on Joan Capdevila’s block of Pedro’s shot in the closing stages of the match to seal the victory for Barcelona at 3-1, showing the predatory, goal-poaching instincts in the penalty area that go understated with all of his other outstanding traits.
Villarreal played really well while the box score would say otherwise, and on many other days, including against Barcelona or Real Madrid, Villarreal would have at least garnered a point in the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, for El Amarillo Submarino, this night was not many other nights.
The critics and the cynics will jump on this match and proclaim that La Liga is morphing into a more glamorous version of the Scottish Premier League because second-place Barcelona now has a five-point gap over third-place Villarreal with leaders Real Madrid six points clear. Villarreal, who was supposedly a danger to the Spanish royalty, could not compete with Barcelona in the second half as Barça deservedly won a 3-1 decision at home.
Maybe there is a kernel of truth behind that argument, but the same pundits who proclaim the Barclays Premier League as the most competitive league in the world because the “Big Four” could lose in any one matchday overlook the fact that only once in the past five years had a club other than Chelsea or Manchester United finished in the top two (Liverpool finished second in the 2008/09 season), the same amount of times it has happened in La Liga when Barcelona and Real Madrid did not end as the top two teams in La Liga (Villarreal finished second in the 2007/08 season).
That is a debate and discussion for another day. The focus should sit squarely on Barcelona and its combination of individual and team performances that led to a two-goal victory over a Villarreal team that deserves it place as the third-best team in Spain at this moment. If Barcelona can carry this form over to El Clásico two weeks from now on Monday night football (!?!?), this upcoming edition of the derby will be the most intriguing Clásico since… the last edition of El Clásico.
Fueras de Juego
- No one exerted less pressure on the opposition for an entire half that Real Zaragoza did in the first half against Sevilla on Sunday. With Zaragoza playing at a snail’s pace with five in the back along with a holding midfielder, Sevilla could have stood still for the entire half and Zaragoza would not have scored. Zaragoza trainer José Aurelio Gay made two changes and a formation shift to start the second half, and the whistles that deservedly rained down on Zaragoza turned into cheers and encouragement as Nico Bertolo got the equalizer and Sevilla left back Fernando Navarro was sent off halfway through the second period. A late winner from Álvaro Negredo, of all people, broke los maños hearts, and Sevilla escaped with a 1-2 victory at La Romareda.
César Muñiz Fernández created another controversy when he clearly appeared to flash the yellow card at Alexis for dissent, which would have been his second, but the yellow was eventually credited to Frédéric Kanouté. Muñiz Fernández is quickly becoming the second coming of Alfonso Pérez Burrull for his puzzling decisions and his general arrogance that only helps to rile up the players.
- Frightening scenes preceded the second half between Hércules and Real Sociedad as an Hércules youth player or employee lay motionless on the ground with the emergency workers quickly coming to his aid to diagnose the problem. As of the time of this writing, there is no update on the situation, but with the recent passings of Antonio Puerta and Dani Jarque, the retirements of Real Madrid midfielder Rubén de la Red and Salamanca midfielder Miguel García, and the ongoing struggles of Sevilla defender Sergio Sánchez, all due to heart problems, one can only hope that this young man has not been struck down with such health problems.
- Manolo Preciado sent the verbal volleys all week at José Mourinho for the latter’s insinuation that Preciado sent in a scrub squad against Barcelona earlier in the season because Preciado knew they would lose, and the bite and venom translated not only through his words but through to his players, as Sporting Gijón showed little respect for Real Madrid with their hard tackling and general sniping with the Real players. Mourinho’s team got the last laugh with Gonzalo Higuaín’s late winner to walk away from El Molinón with the three points, but if one team in Spain will die for their trainer, it is the Sporting Gijón players for their firebrand Manolo Preciado.