March 9, 2014
Neymar brace as Barca sink Villarreal
Free-scoring Neymar hit a double as Barcelona beat Villarreal 2-1 to move three points clear at the top of La Liga while 10-man Real Madrid lost ground as they were held to a 2-2 draw at Osasuna after Sergio Ramos was sent off.
Brazil forward Neymar, who got a treble in a 6-1 Champions League win over Celtic in midweek, scored with a first-half penalty and then put Barca back in front late on after Mateo Musacchio headed the visitors level early in the second period.
The Catalan side are now on 43 points, three more than Atletico Madrid who host Valencia on Sunday, and five in front of rivals Real Madrid who fought back from two goals down to claim a draw after being reduced to 10 men in the 44th minute.
Two first-half headers from Oriol Riera gave Osasuna the advantage but Isco pulled a goal back before the break and a Pepe header salvaged a draw a minute after the home side had Francisco Silva sent off in the 79th minute.
Barca coach Gerardo Martino rotated his squad and Alex Song, who came in for Xavi, was inches away from breaking the deadlock against Villarreal with only a few minutes gone but his volley cannoned against the bar and back into play from a tight angle.
Villarreal have excelled this season by attacking but, missing key players Bruno Soriano and Cani, they resorted to a defensive formation with Giovani dos Santos alone in attack.
The home side had trouble breaking them down but were helped with a penalty for handball by Mario Perez. Neymar, who has started scoring in the absence of the injured Lionel Messi, kept his cool to send keeper Sergio Asenjo the wrong way.
Villarreal were forced to open up in search of the equaliser and Musacchio caught the Barca defence dozing as he headed the ball home from a corner after the restart.
Cesc Fabregas missed a good chance before Alexis Sanchez broke the offside trap and found Neymar who scored from close range. Neymar was inches away from getting his second successive hat-trick in injury time with a shot which grazed the crossbar.
"This performance has made me the happiest yet as it follows on from the good performances against Cartagena (4-1 win in the King's Cup) and Celtic, and we were against a strong Villarreal side," Barca coach Gerardo Martino told a news conference.
"We are on a good run but I always think we are able to improve. It wasn't always easy for us and that's not a bad thing either as it is something that you can learn from.
"Villarreal knew how to wait and attack the spaces while later in the game they were able to pressure us.
"Winning like that gives confidence to the players and it's only a shame that the (Christmas) break is coming up."