Barcelona's draw against Villarreal means Ernesto Valverde unlikely to rest superstars in near future
Manager preparing Catalans for La Liga clash with Atletico Madrid and Uefa Champions League quarter-finals against Manchester United
The route to La Liga’s title may sometimes look like a procession, but that does not mean it has to be dull.
Barcelona, Spain’s champions, have now been reminded in spectacular fashion that any time spent easing off in their pursuit of a treble will be time they regret. Barcelona scored four goals on Tuesday night at Villarreal, and they still managed to drop points.
It was a hectic, wildly entertaining 4-4 draw from which Atletico Madrid, who go to Camp Nou on Saturday, will have drawn encouragement as they persuade themselves that the eight-point gap between Barcelona, top of the table, and themselves, second, is bridgeable.
If by the end of the weekend it is a five-point gap, Atletico will also be pleased to note that Barcelona still have play fixtures against clubs who have been upsetting the odds consistently through a season in which two or three minnows have been flexing their muscles to exhilarating effect.
Villarreal count as minnows, even if they have spent most of the past two decades punching above their weight in La Liga. But they have had a difficult nine months domestically and they are in genuine danger of returning to a second division they have occupied for just a single year since the turn of the millennium.
But against Barcelona, they showed they have goals and gumption in them.
They went 2-0 down within the opening 16 minutes to a Barcelona who had studiously left Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique on the substitutes bench. Manager Ernesto Valverde rested both his best attacking player and his leading defender because of what awaits over the next 12 days: Atletico in the summit meeting of La Liga’s two contenders; Manchester United away the following Wednesday, and then United at home in the second leg of the Uefa Champions League quarter-final on April 16.
The night then turned “crazy” in Valverde’s words.
Philippe Coutinho and fellow Brazilian Malcom – the latter making a rare start – had put Barcelona in apparent command. Then the league leaders collapsed, loose with their passes, and vulnerable to pacey counter-attacks.
“There were moments when it looked like we could win easily, and then we found ourselves with big problems,” the Barcelona manager said.
Villarreal were in the lead by just after the hour, and 4-2 ahead with 10 minutes of normal time remaining. After that, in a storyline that is repeated again and again, Messi, introduced on the hour, led a rescue, his free-kick sending Barcelona hungrily into stoppage time with the belief they could snatch a point. They did, Luis Suarez’s powerful shot from the edge of the Villarreal penalty area in the 93rd minute leaving Valverde relieved.
“Yes, we do have a Messi dependency,” Valverde acknowledged, “and I have not yet seen a team that wouldn’t have a Messi dependency.”
In fact, you can almost set your watch by Messi’s rescue missions, so regular are they, and so reliably brilliant is the Argentine for his club. Rewind to matchday 30 – the same fixture in the calendar as Tuesday’s – last season and Messi was doing the same thing, rested until the 60th minute, he came on against Sevilla with Barcelona 2-0 down, and scored in the 88th minute. Suarez then claimed a point in the 89th minute, for 2-2.
There are fewer deja vus this season in the jostle for who will join Barcelona, Atletico and probably Real Madrid in the 2019/20 Champions League. The battle for fourth place is compelling, and at the moment led by Getafe, who have never played in the European Cup, and survive on a modest budget – only five Primera Division clubs spend less – and an even more modest support base.
Yet they are fourth in the table, and there with enough of a cushion to have clung to that status even having taken just two points from their last nine.
They will probably need better form if they are to stave off the unlikely challenge of Alaves, another club eyeing a possible Champions League debut. The Basques, promoted from the second division in 2016, suffered a bad defeat, 4-0 at Atletico, on Saturday but could join Getafe on 47 points if they beat Sevilla this evening.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have to play both Alaves and Getafe in their title run-in. After the shock at Villarreal, Valverde will feel reluctant to rest his superstars in either fixture.
Updated: April 3, 2019 05:40 PM