Villarreal simply were outshone by a superior Barcelona team tonight, and will have to merely dream of happier times tonight, perhaps to be found in the Europa League. It was truly hard-fought, but kind of in that way that the smallest kid in class finally decides to take on the big bully in the class, and the story just doesn't have that fairy tale ending. Below is my breath-by-breath recap of the match.
Barcelona started without their brightest star, Lionel Messi. But they took possession off the start and held it for fully the first 1:39 of the match. And then took it back 6 seconds later. Villarreal were clearly on the back foot, with Barcelona’s machine working smoothly despite the loss of many of their stars. At some point, I guess any team has to sit back and just say that there are some things you can’t stop, and literally, you can only hope to contain.
Villarreal had every chance in the 4th, as they broke free three on two - but Borja could not get the pass off, and Ruben?Cazorla was left lonely in space in front of the goal. But the team had taken a step towards recovering their confidence for the match. In the 6th, it was incredibly more of the same, where Rossi was sent free by some Cazorla magic, and with a 1-v-1 with Valdes, he couldn’t pull the trigger. While Villarreal were not controlling the majority of the possession, they were getting the better chances through the first minutes of the match.
In the 12th, AGAIN! More great chances, and Rossi’s shot was saved by Valdes. Not sure how Ruben did not at least get a shot off from the rebound. And of note, it was again set up by Cazorla. Villarreal had truly turned the tide, and Barcelona was on the back foot. The confidence was surging through the yellow side.
On the defensive side of the pitch, the back line was holding together well, keeping a relatively high line at times and drawing some offsides.
In the 15th, some hard midfield play on a 50-50 ball and a challenge from Bruno led to blood from Mascherano’s leg, as well as some serious pain on his face. It appeared like he might have cracked his patella when the two players’ knees clanged. Bruno was in a bit of pain himself, but he was the lucky recipient of the yellow card. Mascherano made a miraculous recovery a minute later, and returned to the pitch.
One thing that will always be remarkable about Barcelona, and what is truly one of the secrets of their play, I believe, is the incredible ability to take a cross-field pass perfectly in stride, settling it without even the slightest bounce. How they do that, I’ll never know.
Villarreal settled into a willingness to forego possession in about the 18th minute, and for the next seven or eight minutes, were content to just clear the ball out of the area and not push forward.
In the 27th, Diego Lopez made a tremendous effort to stop Dani Alves when Alves was sent through, and by the effort left the whining Alves writhing on the ground in Oscar-worthy facial expressions of pain. Get up Dani....
The referee had a unique way of handling the "advantage" call - it seemed that through the first 30 minutes of the match, whenever Barcelona would foul Villarreal, and then come up with the ball, the referee decided that the best thing to do was to give Barcelona the advantage. The play was becoming fast and furious in the 31st, when Barcelona on a break created a cross that seemed to tourist itself through Villarreal’s box, checking out the sights of a diving Diego Lopez and the ball-watching Villarreal defense, only to wander through the box without creating any real danger for the home team.
In the 40th, Villarreal finally got a decent call after Pique drilled Rossi from behind on a break. From there on in, each side had some threatening moments, but the clubs were both content to head into the locker rooms to regroup. Halftime rolled in and the clubs sat at 0-0. I would have loved to see something a little more positive on the scoreboard, but all things considered, I think we have played okay. Obviously, our finishing has lacked its punch, but I think the overarching reality of that first half is all in the buildup to the match: Everyone and their mothers have been talking about how Barcelona are coming into a difficult match, how dangerous Villarreal is, and predicting Villarreal to win. All of that is quite possible – but Villarreal rarely handles that type of hype well. It just isn’t in the club’s bloodlines, to be completely honest.
It was again Barcelona who took the decisive stance, immediately bringing pressure on Villarreal’s back line. Villarreal truly looked lost during the first 5 minutes, and it was only by a hair’s breadth that a shot from Villa went wide.
Marchena picked up a yellow in the 50th, as Dani Alves again put on an impressive acting show. It was clearly a foul, but Dani Alves knows how to take a simple foul and straight take it to Broadway. I am wondering if he has an agent for that sort of thing.... In case you were worried (and you shouldn’t have been), Alves was back to his normal self about 7 seconds later.
In the 52nd, Vila-real hearts were in Vila-real throats when they saw Messi line up on the touchline and prepare to enter the fray. The yellow side had already had a hard enough time handling Barcelona’s fast-paced possession, and it was clearly about to get worse. He came on for Keita, showing Barcelona’s resolve to move even further into an offensive mode.
In the 56th minute, an ineffective Ruben was withdrawn, and Nilmar, surely chomping at the bit was brought on. Obviously, Nilmar can ve incredibly powerful as a substitute with his speed, but one has to wonder if his midweek comments about wanting to play for Barcelona had anything to do with it. Of course, no one cared 30 seconds later when his speed caused Valdes to have to come 25 yards out of his box to stop his first foray into the offensive half.
Amazingly, in the 64th, an onside Thiago (who was officially called offsides) snaked a ball that kissed the outside of the post. It would not have made an official difference if he had gotten it inside the post, but it showed the effect that Barcelona were having on the defense of Villarreal, slowly breaking it down.
And it was the 67th where things finally fell apart for Villarreal. Barcelona earned a corner, and somehow Pique, who always scores these big goals for Barca, found himself all alone after Marchena and Musacchio decided that they needed to mark someone else. Then all hell broke loose, as Villarreal found themselves in a defensive shambles for the next few minutes, simply unable to handle the constant pressure, completely out of shape, looking more like a youth squad than the 4th-place team they are.
Cani came on for Marchena in the 71st, as Villarreal needed an offensive boost, and Marchena had spent his day picking up one yellow and trying to pick up more, without having any real effect on Villarreal’s possession. If he had been having a halfway decent match, a better choice might have been to replace Borja, who just did not seem to have what it took today, but Garrido really did not have that option. Of course, if Marchena had been playing well, he might have focused on Pique on that last corner, too.
In the 73rd, our midfielders were playing so deep that by the time the defense finally cleared Barcelona’s lines, their midfield was well behind the clearance, and the ball fell to Barcelona’s feet. Mark that up as another factor that gives Barcelona such a heavy possession advantage in every match they play.
One of Villarreal’s better chances arrived in the 80th in the form of a free kick taken by Borja. He went high and wide, though, and the minutes sped their way towards 90. Finally Villarreal had managed to pick a bit of the possession back up, but I am being literal when I say "a bit" - it wasn’t much.
Diego Lopez saved Villarreal’s skin in the 82nd as a Leo Messi free kick/seeing-eye laser sliced towards the upper 90. There was not much fight left in Villarreal regardless, but it all would have been gone had Lopez not saved that shot.
The best chance of the night for Villarreal truly did come in the 86th, as Valdes made a shocking save on a point-blank shot from Cazorla. The match truly was tied before he even shot it, but Valdes managed to go back in time and steal that goal away with some magic that deserves to go towards the front of his lifetime highlight reel.
FT: Villarreal 0-1 Barcelona
Villarreal had some possession during stoppage time while Barcelona picked up some intentional yellow cards to avoid any suspensions during the Real Madrid match, but all in all, the Yellow Submarine quite quietly sank to the depths, hoping that they saved enough in the tank to take on Twente on Thursday.