Barcelona kept their La Liga title hopes alive with an impressive 4-1 victory over Champions League chasing Villarreal on Sunday night.
A spellbinding first half of football returned four goals. Barcelona took an early lead through a Pau Torres own goal, before Gerard Moreno swiftly restored parity after the hosts ruthlessly exposed the Catalans’ vulnerabilities on the counter.
They weren’t on level terms for long, mind, as Lionel Messi danced his way past Andre Zambo Anguissa before teeing up Luis Suarez who finished superbly from outside the area with one devastating touch.
Antoine Griezmann then earned his just reward for a brilliant individual display in the opening period with the most delightful, audacious and deftest of chips from the edge of the box that left Sergio Asenjo in no man’s land.
Thus, the visitors went into the break with a 3-1 advantage, but a scoreline in the 7-3 region would’ve been more reflective of the most open of contests.
A switch at half-time from Javier Calleja led to a less chaotic – and ultimately entertaining – contest in the second period as he sought to congest central areas. Thus, Barcelona’s approach play became more intricate and methodical, also committing fewer bodies forward in a bid to protect themselves from the counter.
However, the visitors would eventually breach Asenjo’s goal once more through substitute Ansu Fati to seal an impressive 4-1 victory for Quique Setien’s side.
Starting XI: Asenjo (6); Gaspar (4), Albiol (5), Torres (4), Moreno (6); Chukwueze (6), Anguissa (7), Iborra (6), Cazorla (7); Moreno (6), Alcacer (6).
Subs: Bacca (5), Gomez (6), Soriano (6), Trigueros (6), Nino (6)
Key Talking Point
Crisis? What crisis?
With stale attacking play a common theme for Quique Setien since the restart, his Barcelona side churned out the most fluid and aesthetic of performances in Villarreal on Sunday night, especially in the first half.
The interchangeability, astute movement and outright talent within the front three completely overwhelmed the hosts as Setien once again opted for the 4-3-1-2 – with Griezmann replacing Riqui Puig. They were able to progress through the thirds at will, while the industry of Sergi Roberto and aggressive positioning of Jordi Alba ensured Barça overloaded the left flank – helping the Catalans stretch the pitch and create more space for Messi and co. between the lines.
It was incredible to watch, although it’s certainly a system that needs a little bit of work going the other way. With the full-backs high up the pitch, Villarreal were able to expose the Catalans down the channels on the break – with the workload of Barça’s interior midfielders simply too much to cover the void of the enterprising flankers.
Nevertheless, the second period saw a more controlled Barcelona display in all phases which would’ve pleased Setien, as the Spaniard eventually reverted back to the 4-3-3 in response to Calleja’s half-time alterations. Overall, though, it appears he may have found a blueprint for getting the best out of his three big guns up top with the 4-3-1-2.
Starting XI: Ter Stegen (7); Semedo (5), Pique (6), Lenglet (7), Alba (8); Busquets (6), Vidal (6), Roberto (8); Messi (8); Griezmann (9*), Suarez (8).
Subs: Rakitic (6), Puig (6), Fati (7), Braithwaite (6), Araujo (N/A)
Well, what d’you know? Antoine Griezmann is a world-class footballer.
The Frenchman’s troubled maiden campaign in Catalonia meant it was easy to forget the absolute superstar he is, with Setien potentially finding the most harmonious of formulas to complement Griezmann.
On paper, he was partnering Suarez up top, but the fluidity of the front three meant the Frenchman was popping up in deeper roles, often rotating with Messi. His movement persistently befuddled the Villarreal backline and he was able to collect the ball between the lines before combining with his partners in crime almost telepathically.
The confidence Griezmann was playing with in this one was obvious and wonderfully summarised by his gorgeous Messi-esque strike for his side’s third of the evening.
Could this showing kickstart a resurgence for the former Atleti man at Camp Nou?
The Derbi Barceloní is next on the agenda for Barcelona as they host Espanyol on Wednesday before travelling to Valladolid on Saturday evening.
Villarreal, meanwhile, have two huge fixtures in their bid to secure a top-four finish. Before hosting Real Sociedad in eight days time, they travel to Getafe on Wednesday.