Barcelona remain on course to finish unbeaten in La Liga after beating Villarreal 5-1 at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night. Goals from Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho, Lionel Messi and two from Ousmane Dembele gave the champions their 27th win of the campaign.
Nicola Sansone got one back for Villarreal nine minutes into the second half, but it was as close as the Yellow Submarine got.
Andres Iniesta Will be Nearly Impossible to Replace
Andres Iniesta's long goodbye from Barcelona is far from complete, with Marca reporting how clubs in both China and Japan have denied rumoured deals. What is clear is that whenever the 33-year-old moves on, he will be sorely missed.
Iniesta commands respect as one of the best playmakers of his generation, a fact Villarreal made clear they would acknowledge:
Villarreal CF English @Eng_Villarreal
#BarçaVillarreal | Today at the Camp Nou 🏟, #Villarreal will stand aside to applaud @FCBarcelona for their @LaLigaEN title when they walk out and will also present @andresiniesta8 with a ceramic Yellow Submarine to pay tribute to his career and his values as an athlete. https://t.co/2wKedDxWpF
Yet the Yellow Submarine may not have been so keen after the way Barca's cerebral No. 8 tore their defence to shreds. Iniesta delivered the kind of first-half masterclass he's made routine during an illustrious career.
His wonderfully slid pass to release left-back Jordi Alba created a goal for Paulinho, Barca's second on the night.
Iniesta was more directly involved in the Blaugrana's third goal, lifting a superb pass for Messi to deftly turn in after a sweet one-two between two veterans who are still Barcelona's leading lights.
This storied connection is inching toward an end but can still be savoured, per B/R Football:
Even with a star-studded squad, Barca won't find it easy to replace Iniesta's brand of perception and artful quality. The pocket-edition maestro is going to be a tough act to follow.
Barca Can't Sell Dembele
He's been linked with a move to Liverpool, per RMC (h/t Get French Football News), after a difficult first season at the Camp Nou, but on this evidence, Dembele is a player Barca shouldn't even consider selling.
The French forward was in imperious form from the off. He routinely tied Villarreal's back line in knots with his pace and trickery.
Said combination led to Barcelona's opener when Dembele powered forward, rounded a pair of defenders and smashed a shot Andres Sergio Asenjo could only parry. Coutinho thumped in the rebound, but Dembele made the goal.
While he may not have been called on much this season, BBC Sport's Andy West believes Dembele will have a bigger role in the next campaign:
West's point is well-taken since Dembele offers the kind of direct running and ability to create width no other player in Barca's squad can match. There's a greater fluidity whenever the 20-year-old, who took both his goals well late on, starts a match.
As to how Barca manager Ernesto Valverde will accommodate Dembele's particular skills, the initial absence of centre-forward Luis Suarez offered several hints.
No Suarez, No Problem
There's no way of sugarcoating it, Barca were better without Suarez.
Putting Suarez on the bench meant the Blaugrana lacked an obvious focal point. Yet playing without a natural No. 9 lent greater fluidity to the hosts going forward.
The fluidity was best summed up by Barcelona's second goal, a wonderfully intricate and slick team move. It involved Dembele, Coutinho and Iniesta, with the latter sliding a perfectly weighted ball to put Alba in behind.
He promptly crossed low for Paulinho to tap in.
The goal owed everything to the absence of an obvious player through the middle. Messi, Dembele and Coutinho took turns in the central striker role, while Paulinho's runs beyond the front gave Villarreal another headache.
Suarez eventually joined the fray in the 61st minute, replacing Iniesta, who left to a deserved standing ovation. It wouldn't be unfair to say the home side wasn't quite as free-flowing for the rest of the game.
Squawka's Muhammad Butt detailed how playing without a centre-forward could be best for Barca next season:
It seems harsh to be considering life without Suarez, who has scored 30 times in all competitions this season. Yet there's no denying Barca had an extra spring in their collective step when no longer funnelling their play toward the prolific Uruguay international.
Champions Rightfully Get a Guard of Honour this Time
Barca's bitter rivals Real Madrid opted not to perform the traditional guard of honour before the 2-2 draw in El Clasico last time out. Villarreal weren't as churlish, though, happily making the gesture of respect for the league champions, per Rik Sharma of Sport:
Indy Football pointed out the irony of Villarreal observing tradition and the occasion when Real didn't:
Yet the real irony, as ESPN FC's Samuel Marsden noted, was how too few eyes were on Villarreal showing Los Merengues how it should be done:
Even so, it was a refreshing and welcome sight to see the champions, any champions, get their dues. No doubt Villarreal's willingness to oblige where Los Blancos didn't will only further intensify the animosity between La Liga's two biggest clubs.
Villarreal will hope to renew their chase for a European finish when they travel to already-relegated Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday. As for Barca, the champions' bid to finish the season without defeat will continue in Levante on Sunday.