Football Features

Messi, Suárez and inevitability: Five Things Learned from Barcelona’s barmy 4-4 draw with Villarreal

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 23:02, 2 April 2019

In a heart-stopping topsy-turvy clash, Barcelona came from 4-2 down to draw 4-4 with Villarreal.

The draw means they drop two points in the title race, allowing Atlético Madrid to close the gap to 8 points. What did we learn?

1. Messi, Suárez and inevitability

When Leo Messi was summoned from the Barcelona bench with half an hour to play, the score was 2-2 and the idea was he’d help Barcelona win. Then Villarreal blasted two quick goals and it became a rescue mission. Instantly Messi was on the job, dribbling by defenders and playing those impossible through-balls of his, penetrating the Villarreal defence to try and break his side through.

He had little luck until the 90th minute when Villarreal had to gang-tackle him as he picked up steam and ended up giving away a free-kick on the edge of the box. This was risky. Messi bagged his fifth free-kick of the season at the weekend with a delicate chipped effort, so he was certainly in form – but Villarreal were confident, they were 4-2 up!

Then Messi stepped up and like Thor swinging Stormbreaker he obliterated the ball sending the remnants into the back of the net (goalie’s side!) off the post. It felt inevitable, really. Giving the great man an open look like that is just asking for trouble. But at least Villarreal knew that was just a consolation, it was still 4-3 and who was going to score? Maybe Messi again but that would be it. Malcom was flagging, Rakitic not on-rhythm and Luis Suárez had spent the entire last hour of the game being Villarreal’s best defender.

It’s no secret the Uruguayan is past-it, tumbling rapidly on the down-slope of his career, and his performance after a bright first 30 showed just that. His touch was terrible, he couldn’t dribble at all yet kept trying to do so and giving the ball away. He killed countless Barcelona attacks by simply not having the legs to move like he used to, meaning he was never in the right place.

But funny thing about Luis Suárez… there’s still magic in his boots. And so even when he’s playing terribly, you can’t really take him off, because there’s always a chance. In fact it was probably inevitable, really. Most games these days where he is this objectionably bad, he ends up redeeming himself with a stunning goal – although even by those standards a left-foot volley from 25 yards through bodies in the last second of the game to rescue a point is pretty damn special.

2. Santi Cazorla’s magic act

Santi Cazorla missed all of last season and most of the season before through injury. It looked like his career was over when he was let go. Then he was signed by Villarreal, the club for whom he made his professional debut, and unveiled in a weird magic show. It seemed like a nice feelgood story, but nothing more. But no, Cazorla has been brilliant for Villarreal this season – including tonight against Barcelona.

Cazorla was resplendent at El Madrigal tonight, a fever dream in bright yellow. This wasn’t even supposed to be possible from a 34-year-old let alone a 34-year-old with deformed tendons. Cazorla moved with the fluidity of Andrés Iniesta and passed like he was prime Xavi. No Barcelona midfielder could live with him on the night both from open play and set-pieces where his delivery was devilish.

The moment that seemed to define the night (until Barcelona’s heroics) was the final goal for Villarreal, which fittingly saw Cazorla exchange passes in midfield to get into space before measuring an absolute laser of a long pass with his “weaker” left-foot, this thing travelled straight through the heart of Barcelona like a knife, allowing Carlos Bacca to score what should have been the dagger goal.

Cazorla deserved more than a 4-4 draw, and it was fitting that Luis Suárez went over to the Spaniard after scoring the last minute equaliser. We saw it as him consoling a clearly distraught Cazorla, but it’s just as likely he was apologising, because if anyone ever deserved to win a game, it was Santi Cazorla tonight against Barcelona.

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3. Baby Lungs Coutinho

Coutinho is the third most expensive player in the world but he can’t seem to handle more than 30 minutes of continuous intense football. Sure, neither can his team-mate Luis Suárez but the Uruguayan is 32-years-old and spends his every living second on the pitch running around like a madman, so that is at least understandable.

Coutinho is 27-years-old and in the prime of his life. What on earth is his excuse for playing like such an overipe banana? It’s really staggering to see a footballer of such obviously world-class ability play so poorly so repeatedly. It’s not like he’s being denied chances, he’s constantly playing and after giving 30 solid minutes he fades into nothingness.

There have been rumblings that his stamina is not up to par, and honestly it would explain how a player as good as he is can look so sharp in short spells, such as tonight when he began the game brightly and opened the scoring, but then absolutely disappear inside himself. Coutinho offered nothing as the match wore on and it was so telling that it was him, not the much less heralded Malcom, who was taken off with Barcelona chasing a deficit.

4. Chukwueze will be Villarreal’s next one-season wonder

Samuel Chukwueze is a 19-year-old Nigerian sensation who debuted for Villarreal’s first team earlier this season and has already established himself as an indispensable part of the team’s attack. Coming up against the mighty Barcelona he would have been eager to make an impression, but what he did instead of burn his name into the minds of everyone watching.

Chukwueze was an absolute sensation at El Madrigal, tormenting Barcelona from first whistle to last. His pace and movement was too much on the break and every single Barcelona defender, even the rapid Jordi Alba, got worked over. The Nigerian scored Villarreal’s first goal after a delightful run and, after his first shot rocked back off the post, he showed tremendous composure to finish calmly at the far post.

That could have been the end of it, but Chukwueze kept on going. He ran Barcelona ragged, using both his pace and his touch, working as both an outlet and a target, before he was withdrawn to a standing ovation with five minutes left. There is no chance Chukwueze is still playing for Villarreal next season, he’s shown too much skill and ability for a selling club like The Yellow Submarine to pass up a big payday.

5. Valverde’s rotation woes

Ernesto Valverde doesn’t like to rotate. The Barcelona fans want him to rotate. He probably should rotate. Except, he should rotate better, because right now whenever he seems to rotate heavily his side get absolutely splatooned all over the place.

Part of the issue is Valverde rotates a lot away from home, when it’s at the Camp Nou where it would be much safer to do so. Another issue is that he does weird things like play left-centre-back Samuel Umtiti on the right of defence despite the Frenchman having so few minutes all season he was bound to look rusty.

True enough Umtiti looked well off the pace against Villarreal but if he were on his natural side then perhaps this effect would have been lessened. Or perhaps if Valverde had played Nelson Semedo alongside him to “babysit” – the Portuguese is a superb defender and could have helped cover Umtiti, but no, Valverde went with Sergi Roberto who can barely defend at the best of times.

It’s like Valverde, so used to working with limited budgets and small squads, has no idea how to handle a big healthy squad like Barcelona’s and so panics and just makes decisions he thinks people will like. Whatever his process, he needs to go back to the drawing board because rotation is essential and Barça can’t keep relying on Leo Messi to bail them out.