A brilliant save is worth almost as much as a goal. Or at least it can feel like that in situations where you've consigned yourself to defeat thanks to the brilliant through ball and the striker's recent form. Valdes came up huge against Villarreal, a complicated match that required Barça's keeper to be alert at all times. From the fourth minute you could tell that Villarreal were ready to pounce, but neither Giuseppe Rossi, level fourth in the Pichichi standings, nor Santi Cazorla could find their way beyond Valdes, even from point-blank range.
Villarreal should be disappointed with how the match turned out – a 1-0 win for Barca. They went out fiery and controlled portions of the match to the point where you could be forgiven for wondering who the league leaders were. With Thiago and Afellay starting, Busquets and Iniesta in unfamiliar positions, and Xavi, Puyol, Pedro, and Abidal all missing from the line-up entirely, Barça looked a shadow of their regular selves. Messi's introduction early in the second half made an amount of difference, but he was also not as active or creative as normal.
Part of that should be put down in the credit to Villarreal since they harried Barça's front line continually and played excellent defence. They too made last ditch efforts, most notably Catalá's 42nd minute disruption of Villa's route to goal, but mostly they snuffed out the attacks early and kept Barça out of rhythm in the final 3rd. What's more, while I'm sure this isn't actually a true statistic, an opponent earned fewer yellow cards than Barça for the first time in years. Because of Busquets' and Valdes' last minute cards, Barça is now tied for 1st in the Fair Play table.
But mathmatically is not as clear cut as the headlines would make it out to be: with eight matches remaining, Barcelona have an eight-point lead over Real Madrid. A loss at the Bernabeu to Sporting (0-1) and a win by the blaugrana in El Madrigal (also 0-1) has put the wordsmiths to work on furnishing ever newer ways to say "game over;" Marca wrote that no one has ever come back from down eight point with eight matches to go; but the essential truth is that it ain't over til it's over.
With 24 points left to play for, Madrid must win three more matches than Barça, meaning that yes, they have a steep hill to climb, but with one of those matches taking place between the two teams, it's not insurmountable. Barça can, however, clinch as early as the 34th matchday (which is when there will be fewer points available to win than their lead) if they win next week against Almeria and then also defeat Madrid in el clásico. Any slip up by Madrid would obviously hasten the end of the campaign, but that is unlikely and so Barça must remain focused and ready for the coming challenges.
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