Barcelona, Messi-Suarez-Neymar trio storm past Villarreal to put pressure on Real Madrid

Messi celebrates one of his two goals against <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/villarreal/" data-ylk="slk:Villarreal">Villarreal</a>. (Getty)
Messi celebrates one of his two goals against Villarreal. (Getty)

Four goals from the irresistible attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar briefly sent Barcelona three points clear at the top of La Liga with a 4-1 victory over Villarreal on Saturday.

It was the first Messi-Suarez-Neymar hat trick that featured goals from all three since the memorable 6-1 Champions League comeback against PSG, and it shifted the weight of a tight title race onto the shoulders of Real Madrid.

Even after the win, with just two games to play, the league remains out of Barcelona’s hands. That’s because Real Madrid has three remaining fixtures after it rolled to a 4-0 victory over Granada later on Saturday. Madrid’s victory leveled things at the top of the table. But Barcelona’s continued winning — it has now won five-straight in La Liga — has heaped pressure on Madrid, which must hit the road for two of its final three matches, and must deal with fourth-place Sevilla in its lone home game.

Neymar stabbed home Barcelona’s opener on Saturday after the other two parts of the MSN trio combined to present him with a close-range chance. A bit of luck played its part, too. Messi’s deflected shot fell to Neymar’s feet, and despite a slightly wayward first touch, the Brazilian poked the ball into the far corner:

There were some questions of offside, but replays showed that only Neymar’s arm was in an offside position. The assistant referee’s flag stayed down, and Barcelona led 1-0.

But the hosts were pegged back in the 32nd minute when their attempts to squeeze the game backfired. Left back Lucas Digne’s pressure on the ball was slack. That gave Cedric Bakambu time to check back into an onside position, and gave Roberto Soldado time to pick his head up and dump a through ball in behind Barcelona’s absurdly high defensive line. Bakambu dusted Gerard Pique and slotted home at the near post:

Pique wasn’t necessarily at fault on the goal, but did have a chance to make amends in the 39th minute. Messi’s right-footed cross was just out of the defender’s leaping reach:

A minute later, Villarreal had a glorious chance to go in front. Soldado was presented with a free header after Samuel Umtiti got tied up with another yellow-clad attacker. But the former Tottenham striker couldn’t direct his effort on target:

And when you miss chances against Barcelona, the Messi-Suarez-Neymar trio almost invariably makes you pay. This Saturday, it was Messi’s turn to do just that. On the brink of halftime, he skipped left past defenders, and kept drifting left as they flew into and out of his path to goal. He finally found an angle he liked, and wrong-footed Villarreal keeper Andres Fernandez:

The 68th-minute goal that all but put the game out of reach was classic Suarez — not graceful, but devastatingly effective and clinical. He chopped the ball with his left foot into his right shin, but kept control, squirmed free into space, and fired past Fernandez:

Messi made it four after a ridiculous bit of skill from Neymar led to a Suarez half-volley and a penalty:

Though they failed to puncture the net a fifth time, the league-leaders closed the game out in style, toying with their opponents, dancing around them, and enjoying a fifth league win in a row. They don’t look in any danger of dropping points between now and the season’s end. It’s just a matter of whether or not their rivals from the Spanish capital will.

Barcelona holds the tiebreaker by way of its thrilling Clasico victory over Madrid in April. That gave it the head-to-head advantage, which will separate the teams if they finish level on points. So one Real Madrid loss would open the door for the Catalonian side. Even with one draw, Los Blancos would retain control of the title race. But Barcelona’s rampant scoring will be a tough act to match.

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