Villarreal vs. Barcelona: Winners and Losers from La Liga Clash
A decent record at the ground in recent seasons for the Catalans belies the fact that they are given a real test every time they visit the "Yellow Submarine." It was no different this time.
The home side looked to break up Barca's tiki-taka carousel at every opportunity in a case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
It was a fascinating chess match at times.
Let's take a look at the winners and losers from the game...
The words "smooth" and "silky" perfectly describe Ivan Rakitic's performance on Sunday night.
During the early stages especially, almost every play filtered through the elegant Croatian at some stage.
Rarely, if ever, did he misplace a pass—be they long or short. A calming presence in midfield but industrious at the same time, he certainly wasn't frightened to leave his foot in, which is something Barca have missed.
Looking every inch the consummate Barcelona midfielder.
Sergio Asenjo was the saviour for the Yellow Submarine when called upon.
Two saves of outstanding quality lit up the first 45 and kept his side in the hunt going into the break despite Barca's 75 percent possession and almost incessant goal threat.
A flying save to his right to deny Pedro Rodriguez was bettered when a fierce, low free-kick from Lionel Messi took a wicked deflection on it's way to the bottom corner. Asenjo stuck out a glove to divert it onto the post to keep the game scoreless.
Another Messi free-kick was expertly tipped aside just after the hour mark.
Commanding in his area, he was up to the task on each and every occasion.
Munir El Haddadi
Much has been made of Munir ElHaddadi's impact at Barcelona.
Going from the U19 side to the first team in less than a year is a meteoric rise in anyone's book, but this is where Barca need to be careful.
Against Villarreal, Munir's performance was flat. Against a more resolute and professional defence, the youngster found it hard to impose himself, and his frustration was clear to see at times.
Aside from his shot on goal in the opening couple of minutes, Munir couldn't escape the shackles, and it wasn't too much of a surprise when he was withdrawn for the introduction of Neymar.
Barca's Wasteful Crossing
Have you ever witnessed a game where so many crosses into the box have been wasted?
Perhaps away at Granada last season is comparable, but time and again, despite being in really quite excellent crossing positions, the ball into the box was overhit.
Dani Alves was chiefly to blame. For someone of his quality, you would expect at least a handful of balls to be of pinpoint accuracy. There's simply no excuse at this level.
Jordi Alba also seemed to have left his crossing boots at home.
Given the amount of crossing that came from the right channel, Barcelona would have sewn up the game by half-time if the Brazilian was more accurate.
Villarreal's Defensive Excellence
The disparaging among the football fraternity will call it "parking the bus."
In truth, what we saw from Villarreal was a top-class defensive performance from back to front.
Time and again they denied Barca the space they need to exert control over proceedings, and while the game as a spectacle becomes more staccato as a result, you won't find any of the home fans complaining if this is the sort of performance they are treated to each week.
Expertly marshaled by former Tottenham target Mateo Musacchio, the Catalans threw everything at them but were unable to find a way through until the 82nd minute.
Never better than when Victor Ruiz, prostrate on the floor, managed to block a goal-bound effort from Neymar.
What a shame it was Ruiz that played Lionel Messi onside in the lead-up to the opening goal. His performance didn't deserve that one lapse of concentration to be punished.
What a difference in Lionel Messi to that which we saw at the back end of last season.
As with Elche last week, captain-for-the-day Messi was hungry throughout and a constant thorn in the side of the Villarreal defence.
Despite not getting on the scoresheet himself, there was a real threat to his game that has been missing for a while, and his pass to set up Sandro Ramirez for the winner was unselfish and intelligent.
Poor Refereeing Performance
La Liga is unfortunately renowned for the lack of quality from their referees.
Tonight was another example of that.
Far too late in stamping his authority on the game, the official allowed too many crude challenges to go unpunished before belatedly flashing the yellow card.
Pedro Rodriguez and Dani Alves were the unfortunate recipients, despite the latter clearly receiving a studs-up challenge.
El Madrigal Pitch
Is the groundsman at El Madrigal still on holiday?
It's only the second week of the season and the state of the pitch, especially in the wider areas, was an absolute disgrace.
This is La Liga we are talking about. One of the premier football leagues in the world. Not parks football.
Although both teams coped admirably for much of the game, far too often the ball would not run true or players would lose their footing on the surface.
A prime example was Denis Cheryshev's slip on 37', for which a free-kick was bizarrely given against Rakitic.