Barcelona knew that a win over Villarreal would essentially put them in the driver’s seat in their chase for the league title. They also knew it wouldn’t be easy as the “Yellow Submarine” had previously beaten Real Madrid at La Ceramica only a few weeks ago.
The Catalans had a chance in the opening minutes as Pedri played a ball to Robert Lewandowski who got in between the center-backs. Lewandowski had a clear one-on-one against Pepe Reina but his effort was saved by the keeper.
Barcelona were the better team in the opening 20 minutes and saw their dominance rewarded as Pedri culminated a sublime sequence of play.
Frenkie de Jong played the ball to Raphinha on the right. The Brazilian then laid it off to Pedri who returned it to Lewandowski who then flipped it back to Pedri whose shot easily beat Reina who came out to try to anticipate the shot.
It was Pedri’s sixth goal of the season, surpassing his personal tally in the last two seasons combined.
Villarreal created their own opportunities as the half progressed but were unable to find the equalizer. Barcelona had their own chances but were wasteful in the final third, particularly Lewandowski and Raphinha.
The second half is when Villarreal really took control of the game and put the Barcelona defense under a ton of pressure. But that backline of Jules Kounde, Ronald Araújo, Andreas Christensen and Alejandro Balde, along with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, kept the Villarreal attack at bay. Araújo, in particular, was monstrous, making some last-ditch clearances and using his physicality to cut out any threats.
Despite the narrow win, there were still some other highlights such as the performance of Franck Kessie who was filling in for the injured Sergio Busquets. The former AC Milan midfielder put in a solid performance, which is a good sign for Xavi given the absence of Busquets and the change in system where he now utilizes four midfielders.
But the story of the match is going to be the defense. Barcelona picked up another clean sheet and have only conceded seven goals in 21 matches.
“I’m very happy with the win,” Araújo said after the game. “It was an important one and I’m glad to have helped the team in defense and attack. It’s important to keep collecting the points.”
Unsurprisingly, Araújo credited the entire team to their solidity at the back.
“Our defensive record? We worked hard and had to improve after last season,” Araújo said. “We defend solidly, but it starts in midfield by closing the spaces.”
With the win, Barcelona pulled 11 points ahead of Real Madrid who do have a game in hand. However, psychologically, it’s an important lead as it now puts all the pressure on Los Blancos who have no margin for error and cannot afford to drop any more points.
Barcelona will hope the defensive solidity improves and that their finishing improves as they put LaLiga in the backburner as their next match is in the Europa League against Manchester United at the Camp Nou.