Villarreal, as they seem to do every year in the Camp Nou, played hard against Barcelona but a couple of critical errors and a referee unable to produce a red card when he could have--and should have--cost Villarreal any chance at the points. Marcelino opted for a very defensive formation with Soldado as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 (Denis Suarez being the extra man in midfield). And in the first half this group managed to keep Barca at bay, though it took two fine saves from Alphonse Areola to keep things level. Villarreal had a chance to take the lead just before the break but SAmu Castillejo was denied by Claudio Bravo from a tight angle.
HT Barcelona 0-0 Villarreal
On the hour mark, Villarreal came unstuck. A poor pass from Bruno Soriano, of all people, was intercepted and Sergi Busquets placed a perfect pass to the onrushing Neymar who gave Barcelona the lead.
A possible turning point of the match came four minutes later, when Gerard Pique tripped an onrushing Denis Suarez and could have been adjudged last man--Villarreal players protested, but Mr. Shakira only saw a yellow card brandished, not the red. No surprise, since Spanish referees are almost always craven when Barca and Madrid are involved.
Villarreal made an attacking substitution, replacing Pina with Bakambu, but this group hardly had any time to do anything before a second Submarine error led to another Barca goal. This time it was Jaume Costa, fouling Munir in the penalty area. Although Neymar has been taking penalties for Barca, this time Suarez stepped up and sent Areola the wrong way. 2-0 Barca, 20 minutes left.
Yet again, Villarreal took on Barcelona toe-to-toe, but critical errors--the kind you just CANNOT MAKE against Barcelona--resulted in Barcelona goals. I always find myself feeling the way to beat Barcelona, whether in the Camp Nou or on the road, is at least partly out of your control--you have to catch them on a bad day.
Even without Messi, even without Rakitic (hey, his spot was taken by some guy named Iniesta) the gulf in money and talent between Barcelona and their opponents (excepting Real Madrid) is difficult to overcome. And that was nicely shown by Barcelona's third goal, a wonderstroke from Neymar with five minutes left. With Villarreal pushing up, there was space for Luis Suarez to pass to Neymar at the top of the box--he controlled the ball with his chest, hit the ball to his right off his right knee while pirouetting anticlockwise to avoid Jaume Costa and volley the ball with his right foot. A world-class goal to be sure.
FT Barcelona 3-0 Villarreal
Full credit to Villarreal for trying something different, but though we were able to keep things tight for awhile the lack of scoring chances for us was always going to be a problem--unfortunately the best one fell to Samu Castillejo rather than Soldado or Denis Suarez. We only had four attempts on goal all game, just not enough. And having to go with a different back four didn't help, either.
The final score was perhaps unjustly flattering to Barca given how tight the first half was, but once Villarreal fell behind and had to try to catch up, the more open play was a treat for Barcelona. At any rate, as long as the Submarine are able to rebound strongly against Eibar in two weeks' time, I doubt these three points will matter much in the final scheme of things.