Messi makeover obscures cracks in Barca's defensive skin
COMMENT: The Argentine attacker's wonderful winner saved Luis Enrique's side from embarrassment - but a poor performance at the back left doubts on Sunday
Barcelona are never at their best in February. After a purple patch in the last few weeks of January, Luis Enrique's side struggled before being saved by none other than Lionel Messi. Who else?
Barca were often poor in February during the Pep Guardiola era and began 2014's second month with a surprise 3-2 defeat at home to Valencia. A year to the day and they toiled once more. But this time there was a happy ending despite some dreadful defending from Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, who were all caught out of position by a bold visiting side.
Against a valiant Villarreal, Barca went behind to a Denis Cheryshev strike in the first half as the winger (who is on loan from Real Madrid) was left alone to dispatch a rebound from the edge of the box.
Barca's equaliser, a Neymar strike just before half-time, came at an ideal time psychologically and the Catalans looked set to build on that after the break, only to fall behind again as Barca old-boy Giovani dos Santos turned Pique inside out with apparent ease before setting up Luciano Vietto for a simple finish.
Rafinha, in probably his best game for Barca, levelled soon afterwards in a game reminiscent of the 3-2 win at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday as the Catalans came from a goal down twice to win it by the same scoreline.
And this time it was Messi who provided the inspiration as he curled a sublime effort into the top corner to give Barca a win that keep them just a point behind league leaders Madrid - albeit having played one less game than their fierce rivals.
"We came from behind again and that shows we are ready to respond in such circumstances," Luis Enrique said afterwards.
And the Barca boss also defended Luis Suarez after another quiet night for the Uruguayan. "He gives us a lot. It's vital to have someone like him who can push back the central defenders. The goals will come, no doubt about that."
But there was little talk of his side's defensive woes, problems which are likely to rematerialise as the season progresses.
At the moment, the goals are coming from Neymar and also Messi, but conceding twice per game is a risky business - even with the world's finest footballer at hand to get them out of trouble.
"Messi has the freedom to play in any position and choose," the Asturian coach said after the Argentine started on the right once again. And he added: "We want Messi to touch the ball as many times as possible."
It's not Nobel Prize winning work, but it works. And with Barca looking vulnerable at the back, Leo remains their go-to guy in tricky tests like this one. However, a little defensive improvement wouldn't go amiss.
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Barcelona 3-2 Villarreal