Barcelona endure mixed form but keep unbeaten run alive with Villarreal draw
Player ratings: Mathieu fluffs his lines but Mascherano cleans up his mess as Barca draw with Villarreal
Barcelona's 2-2 draw against Villarreal was influenced by standout performances at both ends of the pitch, albeit for very different reasons. Brilliance from Lionel Messi and Neymar had helped to give the away team a 2-0 lead going into the half-time break at El Madrigal. The Argentinean's range of passing was reminiscent of Xavi at times, his switches of play to the opposite flank and threaded balls behind the back four cutting the Yellow Submarine open.
On the opposite wing, Neymar's intelligent movement caused more problems, generating space by pulling opponents out of position, and helping to create numerical superiority in the midfield. The two forwards linked up spectacularly just before the break, when Messi's early pass met Neymar's clever diagonal run and though the resulting penalty was generous, the Brazilian's cool finish was excellent nonetheless.
With Ivan Rakitic already scoring before then, Barca should have seen the rest of the game out but a second half cameo from Jeremy Mathieu made things difficult for the Catalans. Brought on for Gerard Pique with just under hour gone, the centre-back's rhythm was well below the game's high intensity and his indecisiveness helped Cedric Bakambu reduce Barca's lead to 2-1. The veteran defender turned the ball into his own net soon after.
Barca were on the ropes at that stage but Javier Mascherano stepped up and produced a string of decisive last-ditch interventions, the most noteworthy of which came in the last minute of regulation time when he produced a huge tackle in his box to prevent Adrian from winning the game for the home side.
It was a let-off for the Blaugrana, who are now 39 games unbeaten.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Claudio Bravo, 6 -- If not for the Chilean Villarreal would have taken an early lead but his alertness from kick-off was once again an asset to Barca. His quick reading of Victor Ruiz's probing pass to Cedric Bakambu was particularly impressive; the goalkeeper came out of his area and made a headed clearance before the striker had time to think.
DF Sergi Roberto, 6 -- The Catalan was tidy during his hour-long spell at right-back, protecting his flank better than Alba and offering a reliable outlet on the ball. After moving into midfield he only appeared sporadically but when that happened, his runs into the box caused Villarreal problems.
DF Gerard Pique, 6 -- Picked up a harsh early yellow card for what the referee judged to be a handball but was lucky not to receive a second for a far clearer incident soon after. Excellent in his passing as always and provided some important cover in the more stretched phases of play. The drop in Barca's defensive level after he was substituted for Mathieu said much about his importance to the league champions.
DF Javier Mascherano, 8 -- Recovering possession more times than any other player, in the second half the Argentinean was virtually a one-man defence after Pique's withdrawal, bailing Mathieu and Alves out with sharp cover. Perhaps could have done better to stop Denis Suarez before Villarreal's first goal but it seems harsh to criticise him for that after so many important challenges in other instances.
DF Jordi Alba, 4 -- Gave the ball away to Villarreal on several occasions in the first hour or so and had a hard time trying to contain Denis Suarez on the left. Not one of the left-back's finest afternoons, though he did improve somewhat later on.
MF Sergio Busquets, 5 -- Drifted in and out of the game, helping Barca to control some phases of play by dropping deep between his two centre-backs, but did little to contribute to others, with a decreased influence on the ball compared to the rest of his season. Though not awful by any stretch, when he isn't at his best it's clear that Luis Enrique's team suffer.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 7 -- A lively performance from the Croatian, who pressed well to force chances out of Villarreal in the transition and also showed great awareness to put away the opening goal with a first time finish in a congested box. Nearly scored another with a powerful header that forced a great save out of Asenjo. Barca's best midfielder overall.
MF Arda Turan, 6 -- Produced some nice passing in the final third and showed some impressive close control to foil Villarreal's attempts to press and win the ball in midfield. Yet he still struggles defensively, picking up yet another yellow card for a clumsy challenge. That booking ensured Luis Enrique withdrew him early in the second half, just in case.
FW Lionel Messi, 8 -- Pulled off some spectacular passes in the first half, changing the direction of play effortlessly and putting the ball in dangerous areas for Luis Suarez and Neymar. His delivery from a free-kick helped to create Rakitic's opener, and his wonderfully weighted through-ball also led to Barca's second. Adopted a wider position after the break and while not as influential, some of his turns of pace were very effective.
FW Luis Suarez, 6 -- Played an important part in the opening goal by beating his marker to Messi's ball, and stuck vigilantly to his task of fixing the two home centre-backs as high up the pitch as possible. Though not one of the Uruguayan's most aesthetically striking performances, his work without possession was solid.
FW Neymar, 8 -- The Brazilian's movement from the flank to the middle was a major problem for Villarreal in the first half, dragging markers into uncomfortable positions. One of his brilliant diagonal runs was key to Barca winning a dubious penalty from Asenjo, but Neymar's smooth finish from the spot made light of his team's recent troubles from 12 yards. Went quiet for a while after the break but popped up again when Barca needed it, drawing fouls late on to give the away side some time to breathe.
DF Jeremy Mathieu, 3 -- Brought on for Pique early in the second half and had a difficult afternoon. Criminally passive in the build-up to Villarreal's first goal but went one step further by scoring their second for them, deflecting a corner into his own net.
DF Dani Alves, 4 -- On for Arda in the 57th minute. Sporadically linked up with Messi on the right but committed one particularly bad error on the ball when he sloppily misplaced a horizontal pass. Oddly, the veteran provided much less defensive cover than Sergi Roberto, which only gave Mascherano more work to do.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @LeeRoden89.