Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi on target as Barcelona pads La Liga lead
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi broke down a stubborn Villarreal to send Barcelona five points clear at the top of La Liga despite an under-par display in a 2-0 victory at Estadio de la Ceramica. Only after the hosts had midfielder Daniel Raba sent off for an ugly tackle on Sergio Busquets on the hour mark did the Catalans start creating the chances they needed to win the game.
Another clean sheet and a solid defensive performance, despite the absences of Samuel Umtiti and Javier Mascherano, as Barcelona continue to gear up for the Clasico by stringing together good results to keep a cushion between them and the chasing pack.
At times during the first half it was difficult to believe this was the same team that has terrorised defences over the past decade. Ernesto Valverde's Barcelona are doing well domestically and in Europe, but sometimes they lack invention and ideas. If Raba had not earned his red card, they might never have worn down the hosts to grind out a result.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- Valverde brought on Paco Alcacer and it helped open up the game. The coach's persistent faith in Suarez also paid off, with the striker netting the opener. Denis Suarez got a start, too, after good recent performances, showing players can earn their place in the team, even though the playmaker did not deliver on this occasion.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 8 -- Although Jasper Cillessen performed well midweek, the German stopper showed why he is the team's undisputed No. 1 with a phenomenal save from Roberto Soriano in the first half.
DF Sergi Roberto, 6 -- The midfielder seems to be Valverde's go-to right-back choice when Barcelona have tough opponents, which is as much a vote of no-confidence in Aleix Vidal and Nelson Semedo as it is belief in Roberto. This was a solid defensive performance but lacked sparkle moving forward.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 -- The defender nearly enjoyed the perfect start to the game when his bullet header came back off the angle between post and crossbar. Sturdy against the threat of Cedric Bakambu.
DF Thomas Vermaelen, 7 -- The Belgium international performed at a high level again and was untroubled, proving to Valverde he can be relied upon in the Clasico and Javier Mascherano does not need to be rushed back.
DF Jordi Alba, 7 -- Raced up and down the left with his usual vigour and nearly set up a goal for Suarez, whose finish hit the far post and stayed out. Enjoying one of the best seasons of his Barcelona career.
MF Sergio Busquets, 8 -- Barcelona's defensive pivot proved more useful in an offensive sense for the team on this occasion, with the game changing when Raba was sent off for a lunge at him. Busquets then sent Messi through on goal for the winner.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- Played further up against the pitch than against Sporting due to the return of Busquets, but was still more attentive to his defensive duties than attacking ones.
MF Paulinho, 5 -- The Brazilian's signing has largely gone down as a success despite the brouhaha when it was announced, but he was largely ineffective this time out. Brought off for Vidal.
MF Denis Suarez, 5 -- The Galician's outstanding display against Sporting Lisbon earned him a spot in the starting line-up, but he could not impress against his former side. Denis was brought off after 58 frustrating minutes.
FW Luis Suarez, 7 -- Struck the post with an effort across goal before breaking the deadlock in the 72nd minute. Suarez played one-twos with Messi and Alcacer, before rounding Sergio Asenjo and tucking home. Showed he's not quite back to his best when he skewed a volley wide from close range late on.
FW Lionel Messi, 7 -- The Argentine was shackled in the first half but after Villarreal were reduced to 10 it was impossible to stop him. Involved in the build up to the first goal and netted the second with a neat burst of speed to leave two defenders in his wake before slamming home.
FW Paco Alcacer, 8 -- The striker still hasn't convinced Valverde to give him a start but is consistently impressive when coming on from the bench. Caused havoc at the back and set up Suarez's opening goal.
MF Aleix Vidal, 6 -- Offered some extra speed and physicality on the right after replacing Paulinho, as Valverde looked to stretch the game and take advantage of the tiring hosts.
MF Andre Gomes, NR -- Came on for Busquets to run down the clock late on.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.