Neymar made it five goals in two games with both of Barcelona’s goals in a tough 2-1 victory over Villarreal at the Camp Nou. Following his hat-trick against Celtic in midweek, Neymar got the breakthrough against the side promoted back to the Spanish top flight last season from the penalty spot.
With their only effort on target in the match, Villarreal got back on level terms when Mateo Mustacchio headed in a corner just after the interval. Barcelona, though, produced just enough quality when it mattered and Neymar finished from close range midway through the second period.
Coming after their rivals’ slip-up earlier in the day, the result means that Barcelona take a potentially pivotal five point lead over Real Madrid. Their advantage over Atletico Madrid is now three points, ahead of Atletico hosting Valencia on Sunday. On the back of a defeat last time out in La Liga, to Athletic Bilbao, it was a welcome three points for Gerardo Martino. Once again, though, for much of the match the performance was far from convincing. Alex Song and Martin Montoya again looked worryingly out of place in a side renowned for its technical acumen.
It wasn’t until late on, after Xavi has replaced Song, that Barcelona played with the kind of tempo and sharp passing that was once their staple. Indeed, by the end the score-line could have been more emphatic, with Neymar denied back-to-back hat-tricks by the crossbar.
The match might have been more comfortable for the hosts had they taken an opportunity to go in front in just the sixth minute. A corner found its way through to Song at the back post but the Cameroonian crashed a shot against the post.
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Barcelona dominated possession throughout the largely uninspiring contest, but struggled to find any penetration behind a well-organized Villarreal side.
There was a heavy sigh of relief then when they were handed a chance to go in front. Mario can count himself unlucky to have been penalized for a handball when Jordi Alba’s first time volleyed cross struck his arm from close range. Though with the defender’s arm just slightly away from his body, it may have been the correct, if still very soft, call. Neymar, full of confidence, strutted up to the spot and sent Sergio Asenjo the wrong way.
While still far from their best, Barcelona’s most incisive move of the first half should have produced a second goal before the break. The ball broke to Alexis Sanchez with just the goalkeeper to beat, but his side-footed effort lacked conviction and Asenjo saved well down low.
Although they had largely frustrated Barcelona in the first half, there was little suggestion, other than some neat touches from former Barca youth product Manu Trigueros, that Villarreal would pose any threat going forward. But just three minutes into the second half, they stunned the Camp Nou crowd by getting back on level terms by virtue of exposing Barcelona’s weakness at set-pieces. Marc Bartra was the culprit on this occasion, allowing Musacchio to easily get in front of him to power a header in off a hand of Jose Manuel Pinto from six yards out.
Suddenly the game was a genuine contest, with Giovani dos Santos going close moments after Villarreal pulled level. It was the introduction of ageing pass-master Xavi that triggered Barcelona to up their game and take the match away from the visitors.
Fabregas had just had a clear chance denied by Asenjo, before he played a key role in setting up the winner. The former Arsenal man played a fine angled ball into the box and with Jaume Costa unnecessarily and unsuccessfully trying to play offside, Sanchez’s well-timed run got him in behind and he unselfishly laid it across for Neymar to turn in from close range.
The home side would finish with a flourish, providing more of a blueprint of what will be required moving forward, as Andres Iniesta and Neymar went close.