Barcelona missed the chance to open up an 11-point lead in La Liga on Sunday as they were held to a 2-2 draw with Villarreal at El Madrigal.
Ivan Rakitic opened the scoring in the first half, and Neymar doubled Barca's lead from the spot before half-time. Cedric Bakambu pulled one back after the break, before a Jeremy Mathieu own goal saw the home side equalise.
Villarreal were excellent for much of the contest, while Barcelona struggled to meet their usual standards, though both goalkeepers were required to keep the score from being much higher with some strong saves.
The hosts flew out of the traps against their illustrious opponents and almost took a lead inside the first minute when Manu Trigueros struck the post with a header. Bakambu forced a strong save from Claudio Bravo six minutes later after being picked out by Denis Suarez.
Villarreal maintained their early pressure for some time as they contained and harried the Blaugrana all over the field, but a mixup in the 20th minute saw them go behind.
Sergio Asenjo failed to deal with Lionel Messi's lofted free-kick into the area, and the ball fell kindly for Rakitic, who duly tucked it home:
Five minutes later, Villarreal boss Marcelino was sent to the stands for protesting to the referee, seemingly wanting a second yellow card for Gerard Pique after the Spaniard was booked earlier for a handball. Football writer Andrew Gaffney believes the manager had a point:
Andrew Gaffney @GaffneyVLC
There is a sending off though as Villarreal coach Marcelino is banished to the stands for protesting the decision.3/20/2016, 3:25:33 PM
The Yellow Submarine resumed their attempts to press Barca, and Trigueros put another effort on target, but his shot was straight at Bravo.
Their efforts were hampered by another setback when the referee controversially awarded the visitors a penalty shortly before half-time:
@filippomricci Regalado? Mira los pies de Asenjo y Neymar https://t.co/bUAxGWlcrH3/20/2016, 3:44:39 PM
Neymar scored the resulting spot-kick:
rahmadeux 💆 @rahmadeux
Neymar PK💪 https://t.co/vuafnxp4cj3/20/2016, 3:43:45 PM
Barca looked more their usual selves after the break, with Villarreal deflated by going two goals behind, and set about controlling the possession without the need to push forward in search of more goals.
The hosts pulled one back thanks to some poor goalkeeping from Bravo. Suarez wriggled through the visitors' defence with a promising run before scuffing an effort goalwards, and the stopper could only divert the ball into Bakambu's path.
Reinvigorated, Villarreal resumed their attack and Bravo had to get down well to deny Bruno Soriano. Just five minutes after Bakambu scored they were level, when substitute Mathieu deflected the ball into his own net after Roberto Soldado rose to meet a corner:
French Touch FC @FrenchTouchFC
Le CSC malchanceux de Jérémy Mathieu, qui permet à Villarreal d'égaliser face au Barça... (2-2) #Liga https://t.co/bL8E5jcTjm3/20/2016, 4:29:23 PM
As journalists Rafael Hernandez and Kieran Canning noted, the Frenchman is a liability at the back for the Blaugrana:
Rafael Hernández @RafaelH117
Mathieu responsible for the two Depor goals and now this... Sigh.3/20/2016, 4:27:33 PM
Kieran Canning @KieranCanning
Villarreal level! Mathieu og. He's been Villarreal's best player since coming on3/20/2016, 4:19:18 PM
Meanwhile, Real Madrid TV's Phil Kitromilides was impressed with Villarreal's response:
It was the visitors who enjoyed the better opportunities in the closing stages, though.
Rakitic had two more excellent chances to score as Barca sought a late winner, first directing a header at the bottom corner, which Asenjo did well to keep out. Then the midfielder should have done better when the 'keeper palmed a cross into his path, but Rakitic sent his effort sailing over the bar.
The Spaniard was called into action once more as Neymar launched a powerful effort on goal from distance with three minutes of normal time remaining.
After Atletico Madrid's defeat, the draw extends Barca's lead to a healthy nine points, so while they'll rue the fact they were unable to capitalise, they're still in an excellent position to win the title.
The Catalan giants face Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in their next outing, and they'll need to prove more resilient at the back if they're to keep out Cristiano Ronaldo and Co.
Despite seeing his side throw away a two-goal lead, Barcelona manager Luis Enrique was pleased with the point, per Barca's official Twitter feed:
FC Barcelona @FCBarcelona
🔊 Luis Enrique post game press conf. - "The game was tough against quality opposition" #FCBlive https://t.co/pUYIZi6EJU3/20/2016, 5:06:34 PM
According to Barcelona, he added: "The result is a positive one. Picking up points over second place is always great and we are closer to our objective."
Per Villarreal's official website, Marcelino praised his side:
It was an amazing match. We deserved to win and clearly so. What the players did counts for so much, as nine players played against Leverkusen last Thursday. We were better than Barca in general. We scored two goals and matched them in everything they did which is so difficult to do. I am extremely proud of this team. It’s difficult to compete any better than that.
On the refereeing decisions, he added: "Barca play and then there’s a referee to make decisions. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes they do. In today’s match not everyone was on form on the pitch. Then it's up to the journalists to make judgements and say what happened out there."
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