Barcelona stay top of La Liga as Messi, Neymar, Suarez strike to beat Villarreal
BARCELONA, Spain -- Three thoughts from Barcelona's 4-1 victory over Villarreal in La Liga on Saturday.
1. Barcelona stay top with Villarreal win
This was supposed to be the game in which Barcelona could come unstuck. But by the time the final whistle blew, Villarreal -- who boast La Liga's second-best defence -- had conceded four and were perhaps grateful they hadn't conceded more. Lionel Messi scored twice and Luis Suarez and Neymar were also on target as manager Luis Enrique's side won 4-1, racking up their fifth consecutive league win and keeping the pressure on Real Madrid in the race to be crowned La Liga champions.
If Madrid win all of their remaining four games -- they can even afford to draw one -- they will win their first league title since 2012, but Barcelona are doing everything they can to make sure they're ready to take advantage of any slip-up manager Zinedine Zidane's side might make in the coming weeks.
Last week's Catalan derby against Espanyol and Villarreal's visit to Camp Nou this weekend were pencilled in as the two biggest tests left for Luis Enrique's side. They've managed to come through them both and without really breaking a sweat. Now all they have to do is see off Las Palmas and Eibar -- although it's against lesser opposition that they've struggled this season -- and cross their fingers.
Against the backdrop of the baking Barcelona sunshine, a cagey game eventually erupted into entertainment after Neymar opened the scoring for Barcelona in the 21st minute. The Brazil international ended a run of five matches without a goal -- dating back to the win over Granada on April 2 -- when he prodded home inside the 6-yard box after Messi's shot had deflected into his path.
That woke up the visitors, who had been happy to sit back and see what Barca's plan was until then. A Sergio Busquets mistake almost let them in, but Cedric Bakambu's pass was just too long for Roberto Soldado. Messi then fired wide from a clever Ivan Rakitic pass as the two teams traded blows.
It was Villarreal's turn for a chance next, but they didn't miss this time. Bakambu burst through from the halfway line, leaving Gerard Pique behind and hammering the ball past Marc-Andre ter Stegen once he reached the box. It was his seventh goal in his past six games.
And still the chances came. Pique and Suarez were both off target for Barcelona, and Soldado glanced a free header wide from 6 yards. Neymar then missed an opening for his second, and it looked as if it would be level at half-time. Until Messi decided otherwise. The Argentina star brilliantly beat Roberto Soriano, drifted to the left and unleashed a low effort from the edge of the box, which deflected off Mario Gaspar and past Andres Fernandez. It was his 50th goal of the season across competitions and No. 100 for Barcelona's "MSN" trio.
Still there was a feeling that Villarreal could get something from this game. Barca were leaving space at the back, stepping up and taking risks. They were risks that eventually paid off, though, as Barca ended up running away with the game late on, with the oles coming out for some of Neymar's trickery.
Suarez effectively killed the game off when he applied the finish to a swift counter led by Sergi Roberto, but it was Neymar who really brought Camp Nou to its feet. He produced an amazing piece of skill to leave Mario dazed in a move that led to a penalty. Messi dispatched from 12 yards and it now looks certain that La Liga title race will go to the final weekend.
2. "MSN" pass 100-goal mark for the season
The milestones brought up by Barcelona's attackers against Villarreal sound as dazzling as ever. Messi reached 50 goals for the season, and there are few words left to describe the incredible consistency with which he has scored throughout his career at the club. Meanwhile, Messi, Suarez and Neymar have now brought up 102 goals between them on the season.
However, as impressive as that sounds, a deeper look could reveal why Barcelona might yet end the season with just the Copa del Rey to show for their efforts. In their first season together, as the Blaugrana won the treble, the trio weighed in with 122 goals. During last campaign's double-winning efforts, they raised that tally to 131.
This season, then, and with just three games left to go -- two in the league and the cup final -- Messi, Suarez and Neymar are almost certain to register their lowest total.
That in itself isn't a massive problem. But the issue for Barcelona is that while their three danger men's numbers have slightly tailed off in relation to previous campaigns -- Messi excluded -- no one has been able to take advantage of the the attention opposition players pay to them, which creates spaces and opportunities for others.
Rakitic has admittedly started to chip in recently, but he has just eight across the season. Arda Turan has 13 goals, but few have come at important times. His two hat tricks were in run-of-the-mill wins in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey victories. Rafinha has scored valuable goals, but he has only seven and he's spent a lot of time nursing injuries.
3. Villarreal miss chance vs. wide-open Barca defence
In his pregame news conference on Friday, Luis Enrique not so much as predicted but guaranteed his side would leave space for Villarreal in the back. And that was the case when the first half came to life after Neymar's opener.
It's not the space Luis Enrique will have minded, though; it's the mistakes. Both Ter Stegen and Busquets were guilty of cheap errors in dangerous positions. Neither was punished, but Barcelona were when their high line was caught out and Bakambu scored an equaliser.
There were numerous other chances for manager Fran Escriba's side, too. Soldado wasted a free header and there was a real feeling that they could score each time they attacked.
However, they failed to take advantage of the errors and the space ceded to them. Even in the second half, at various stages, they had chances to get back in the game. In fact, the goal that effectively clinched the win for Barca by Suarez came on the back of a Villarreal attack.
Villarreal are not the first team to be ruthlessly punished at Camp Nou, though, and they will not be the last. Now they have to focus on their final two games of the season -- against Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia -- and their bid to claim a Europa League spot.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.