x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Barcelona return to damp squib

The world champions struggle to home draw against Villarreal since returning from Abu Dhabi with the Club World Cup.

The victorious Barcelona players entered Camp Nou for the first time since returning from Abu Dhabi with the Club World Cup. Fireworks were set off pitch side and smoke enveloped the stadium as Coldplay's Viva La Vida - Barça's dressing room anthem during a remarkable 2009 in which they won six trophies - pumped through speakers as tall as a house.

The sextet of silverware sat glistening on a table in the centre of the world's biggest football stadium and were soon surrounded by the team which won them all. As the ubiquitous Black Eyed Peas I Gotta Feeling followed, few in the huge 85,000 crowd would have had a feeling about what was to happen. When Barça went ahead after eight minutes against Villarreal yesterday - Thierry Henry superbly volleying a Dani Alves cross against the crossbar before Pedro followed up with the rebound - it looked like Barça would continue the form which has seen them win all seven home league games so far this season. That and Pedro could add Barça's first goal of he decade to his long list of individual achievements.

With Lionel Messi absent after being given extra day's holiday, an injury to Seydou Keita plus Yaya Toure's early departure for the African Nations Cup, Mexican midfielder Jonathan dos Santos started for the first time. The younger brother of the once vaunted Giovani dos Santos, he looked comfortable. The same could not be said of Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol, Barça's central defensive partnership who were uncharacteristically prone to errors.

When, bizarrely, a stray cat darted across the pitch, it looked dazed and confused. When the delightful winger Santiago Cazorla or in-form Brazilian striker Nilmar sped in front of Puyol, he looked the same. The Yellow Submarines have recovered from a poor start to become one of the league's form teams. After threatening the Barça goal several times in the first half, their 51st-minute equaliser through David Fuster was fully deserved after he half-volleyed a Cani cross. Villarreal then managed to do what no team has done at Camp Nou in recent years - dominate in midfield.

Andres Iniesta, sporting a freshly shaved head, was introduced to a huge cheer as Barça attempted to re-establish their lead. He curled a shot goalbound in the 64th minute, but Diego Lopez was spectacular making a save. As the rain lashed down in the largely uncovered stadium, the crowd became frustrated enough to wave white hankies of protest at the referee. Zlatan Ibrahimovic showed his annoyance by making a reckless two-footed challenge, incurring the wrath of coach Pep Guardiola who told him to calm down.

"It was a very tough game, returning from the holidays to play one of the best teams like Villarreal," said Guardiola after the match. "We have to work harder and need to fine-tune a few things and recuperate before [tomorrow's Copa Del Rey last-16 match first leg] the match against Sevilla." Villarreal coach Ernesto Valverde was understandably satisfied. "We played well enough to beat the best team in the world in their own stadium," he said. "Barca were uncomfortable and we were not. We will take encouragement from the way we played."

The draw meant Real Madrid could draw level on 40 points with Barcelona if they beat Osasuna late last night. In Saturday's other Primera Liga games, Valencia beat Espanyol 1-0 at the Mestalla to move up to third above Sevilla, who lost 2-1 at Atletico Madrid. Sevilla squandered the lead and conceded a goal in the fourth minute of injury time as Atletico moved up to a season high of 11th. @Email:sports@thenational.ae