Where to begin? Remember that in our first game of the season we went to the Nou Camp and lost 5-0 (that was with Rossi and Nilmar, incidentally). Here we were taking on Barcelona at El Madrigal without those two guys. In the buildup to the match, our main causes for optimism were (1) Barca's tough game against Madrid in midweek (2) we were playing at home (3) we were coming off an excellent game at home against Gijon (4) Iniesta and Alexis had been injured in midweek and we thought neither would be available.
That's all great, but in our poll before the game most responders expected us to get nothing from this match, and I freely admit I was among them (besides, you can tell from the podcast in the preview what I thought!!). But, you never know, right?
Coach Molina had clearly watched the clásico in midweek, and he set out to do what Real Madrid had done--press high up the pitch, squeeze play into a small area and disrupt Barca's passing game. Which without Iniesta seemed a good strategy, though Xavi, Cesc and Messi were in the Barcelona lineup.
Villarreal played the same starting XI as against Sporting, with Gonzalo and Musacchio in the center of defense, Senna and Bruno in the doble pivote, and Joselu and Marco Ruben in a 4-4-2. Barcelona played a sort of 3-4-3/4-3-3, with Busquets and Mascherano both in the lineup, along with Abidal, Piqué, Puyol and Alves. Adriano, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Messi made up the rest of the lineup in front of Victor Valdés.
The first twenty minutes or so were really annoying. Not because of Villarreal's play, but because every close decision was going to Barcelona. Referee José Antonio Teixeira Vitienes seemed to stand around and let Barcelona do what they wanted, while attempts to challenge their players invariably brought a sharp 'peep'! I think the first eight fouls of the game were all whistled against Villarreal (it did even up some later).
In the third minute Davi Alves had a great chance to put Barcelona in front. Never mind that he looked offside and controlled the ball with his hand. Maybe he didn't think he was onside himself, because he shot straight at Diego López. I breathed a sigh of relief while my wife commiserated with my screaming at the referee.
Villarreal were pressing Barcelona in midfield and disrupting play nicely, but they were having trouble playing out of their own half. Gonzalo, Cani, Angel were all guilty of giveaways to start Barcelona attacks. Which to be honest seemed to be the only way Barcelona were going to start an attack--they clearly were not in sync.
From one of these giveaways the ball was fed to Leo Messi (maybe offside, but as I said....). Here was the best-player-in-the-world, one-on-one with Diego Lopez, and the BPITW calmly chipped it over our keeper....and wide of the far post, with Gonzalo rushing back to clear it had it been on goal. Somehow, it just seemed maybe this wouldn't be Barcelona's day.
It wasn't totally our day, either, because at the other end Borja Valero crossed the ball from a free kick and Valdés missed the ball (surely he was interfered with by Musacchio? by now I was beginning to think the referee was not so much biased as bad) and Piqué nearly headed it into his own net before it was cleared off the line--by Busquets, I think--and Joselu's volley was blocked by Eric Abidal (who was Barca's best player on the night in my estimation).
Marco Ruben had a golden chance to put us ahead from a fast break but skied his shot from the edge of the box well over, and Marcos Senna had a fine shot tipped round the post by Valdés. We actually 'scored' from the resulting corner, but Gonzalo was clearly offside.
At the break, there was some confusion about how many yellow cards Villarreal had. ESPN and the Spanish TV stream had Musacchio, Gonzalo and Ruben all with yellows. None for Barca. But the last 20 minutes or so we had created some chances, and Barcelona's possession advantage (64-36%) didn't really mean much. We were giving as good as we got, if not better. An impressive performance.
HT Villarreal 0-0 Barcelona
Within three minutes of the restart we had a talking point. Borja Valero burst into the box, took the ball toward the goal line and was tripped by Sergio Busquets. Marca, ESPN, yours truly, even many of the Barca Blaugranes folks watching thought it was a penalty--but not the guy who counted. Jose Antonio Teixenes waved play on.
Watching the level of commitment Villarreal was putting out on every ball, you knew it was a matter of time before the legs got tired, and by the hour mark we were a spent offensive force, pretty much. Joselu and Ruben were working tirelessly but Borja was finding he had little opportunity to create anything, as we were being pushed deeper and couldn't move the ball up the pitch that much.
Barcelona brought on the miraculously recovered (sort of) Alexis Sanchez for Pique. If Hernán Pérez had been available, this would have been the time to use him, because now Barca was playing three at the back and his speed might have created a chance for himself or for someone else. Of course, he wasn't, and while no one was playing badly Molina clearly needed to give us some sort of breather, though Barcelona looked disjointed and Alexis far from 100%. The game was beginning to slip away from both teams, which probably suited us better than Barcelona.
Molina took off Cani and brought on Castellani with 18 minutes left to go, though the Argentinian wasn't at first used to the speed at which Barcelona close you down. Dawdle in possession, and you lose. And with everyone else showing signs of fatigue, Barcelona were closing us down farther and farther up the pitch. With 14 minutes to go Pep made a double switch, taking off Xavi(!) and Adriano and bringing on Tello and Thiago. I'm glad he didn't do this sooner, because Tello immediately had Angel in difficulties, beating him to the byline and crossing the ball back for Fabregas--his shot was deflected slightly by Angel or Musacchio, but López tipped it off the bar. A great save.
Barcelona were now playing the way they should've done earlier, but Villarreal's defense looked more composed and confident than I've seen in a long time. Well, except for one time when Messi beat Gonzalo and our defender made to attempt to do anything other than take Messi's shirt off. No question he wasn't the last man, but he could've easily been given a red because he made to attempt to play the ball. The referee gave him a yellow. And we thought that was his second yellow--but it wasn't. The Barcelona players seemed confused too, but evidently only Ruben had been booked along with Musacchio in the first half. Well done, José Antonio!!
Still, you can never rule a team with a Lionel Messi out; with four minutes left a quick one-two found him inside the box with only Lopez to beat, and our keeper made an astonishing save. The rebound went to Fabregas who skied it into the night air well over the goal! Maybe it really was going to be our night.
Molina had to make two forced changes late--Marco Ruben came off, Camunas came on, and Marcos Senna, who was exhausted and had played his heart out, came off for Carlos Marchena. Villarreal were content to boot the ball around anywhere to clear the danger, but truth to tell as the game concluded it was Borja Valero and Castellani who were forcing the action in the Barcelona half, though nothing came of it.
FT Villarreal 0-0 Barcelona
Cynics will say we didn't really do much attacking in the second half, and that's largely true, but we did what we had to do to neutralize Barcelona. The blaugrana looked poor most of the match; give Villarreal a lot of credit for that.
My men of the match (I can't choose just one) would be Diego López, Gonzalo and Marcos Senna, but Joan Oriol, Bruno and Borja--well, hell, everybody--were not far behind. And Coach Molina had to be pleased with the intensity and commitment we gave out there.
Word is Senna was just exhausted, not injured, but Ruben may have a shoulder injury. Hopefully nothing serious. This wasn't a game we needed to win, so the point we got today is gravy. And who knows, it may come in handy by the end of the year. Though if Sr. Molina can figure out how to get the team to play like this on the road, we might find escaping the relegation zone is easier than we think. Endavant Villarreal!!