Published:  12:00 AM, 10 January 2017

Messi to the rescue, but Barca lose ground on Real

Messi to the rescue, but Barca lose ground on Real Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (L) vies with Villarreal's midfielder Bruno Soriano during the Spanish league between Villarreal CF vs FC Barcelona at El Madrigal stadium in Vila-real on Sunday. -AFP
Barcelona's poor start to 2017 continued as they lost further ground on Real Madrid at the top of La Liga despite a sensational last minute Lionel Messi free-kick salvaging a 1-1 draw at Villarreal on Sunday. The Spanish champions lost their opening game of the year at Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey on Thursday and now trail Real by five points having also played a game more. Italian forward Nicola Sansone looked to have handed Villarreal the first win over Barca since 2008, but Messi's late intervention denied the hosts on the day they announced a sponsorship deal to rename El Madrigal the Ceramic Stadium.

A draw leaves Villarreal still in fifth, a point adrift of Atletico Madrid in the final Champions League place. However, Enrique insisted Barca remain very much in the title hunt despite their chances now depending on a Madrid collapse in the second half of the season. Barca dominated possession throughout, but struggled to create clear-cut chances against the tightest defense in La Liga.

Messi came close in unusual fashion as his thumping header from a corner was tipped over by Sergio Asenjo before Luis Suarez's fiercely hit drive was also too close to the Villarreal 'keeper. Another Villarreal counter-attack caught the Spanish champions cold at the start of the second-half as Alexandre Pato's perfectly weighted pass picked out Sansone and his effort back across goal nestled in the far corner. Villarreal ended with 10 men as Jaume Costa saw a second yellow card deep into stoppage time, but there was barely time to restart the game before blew for full-time and arguably brought the curtain down on Barca's title defense.

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