Draws at home against Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. A comprehensive defeat at San Mamés Barria against Athletic Bilbao. Which performance would more closely resemble Villarreal's effort at Camp Nou against league leaders Barcelona on Saturday night? Mostly the former, albeit Villarreal fell 2-1 to a Neymar brace.
Without the talismanic Rubén Cani and Bruno Soriano, Marcelino García Toral deviated from his preferred 4-2-2-2 formation and opted for three holding midfielders and just one out-and-out striker. With Giovani dos Santos leading the line, and Hernán Pérez and Javier Aquino bombing up and down the wings, pace was the order of the day.
Alex Song hit the post from a scrambled corner kick early on, but otherwise the Barcelona attack was relatively quiet. The home side controlled field position and ball possession throughout the match (to the tune of a whopping 75-25%), but quality chances were few and far between in the opening half-hour.
Then the home side received a lifeline: a soft penalty for a handball just inside the box. Jordi Alba attempted a first-time cross after a cross-field pass, and with Mario Gaspar just a few feet away, the ball struck the Villarreal right back's dangling arm. Mario did not reach out to halt the ball's progress, but the foul was awarded -- a situation begging for discretion to award an indirect free kick and not a penalty. Neymar converted the spot-kick with a paradinha even more pronounced than that of Giuseppe Rossi. 1-0 in 30'.
Villarreal hung on until halftime, including a wonderful save by Sergio Asenjo on Alexis Sánchez. Mario and Mateo Musacchio were both outstanding on the evening, and some gritty defending kept the scoreline as-is until the break. 1-0 at HT.
Probably fair for the first half, but Villarreal had a different attitude in the second half. Within the opening minutes, the Yellow Submarine had forced its first corner of the match, and the equalizer followed in short order. A great delivery by Manu Trigueros, and captain Musacchio powered home the equalizer off Pinto from around the penalty spot. 1-1 in 48'.
Villarreal's best spell of the match followed, including a Gio strike that flashed just wide of the post. But as could be expected, the leveler woke up the hosts, and the entrance of the timeless Xavi Hernández was too much. After another point-blank denial by Asenjo, this time on Cesc Fabregas, Barcelona took the lead with a trademark goal. Alexis hung on Jaume Costa's back shoulder, received a cross-field pass with aplomb, and laid off for Neymar to tap into an empty net. 2-1 in 68'.
Ikechukwu Uche and Jony Pereira came on to spark the attack but were starved for service and had no impact on the match. Barcelona was closer to a third goal than Villarreal to an equalizer, including another massive Asenjo save, this time on Andrés Iniesta. But with a one-goal margin and Gio in form, there was always a chance -- sadly it never came on this night. 2-1 at FT.
Hard to be disappointed with the result at Camp Nou, but Barcelona was vulnerable on the night. A healthier Villarreal midfield, combined with home-field advantage, may counteract the return of Lionel Messi and Victor Valdés for the second leg at El Madrigal in late April. Time will tell, but the Yellow Submarine did Liga Justa proud.
On to Elche on Tuesday night in the Copa del Rey. Endavant Villarreal!