Antoine Griezmann scored twice to earn Barcelona a 2-1 comeback win over 10-man Villarreal that keeps the pressure on LaLiga leaders Atletico Madrid.
Barca are now unbeaten in 24 league meetings with Villarreal but were made to work hard for their latest victory at Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday.
Griezmann struck twice in the first half, but only after Samuel Chukwueze had opened the scoring for Villarreal against the run of play with his third goal in as many league appearances.
Manu Trigueros was sent off for a studs-up challenge on Lionel Messi in a quieter second period as Barca made it eight wins from their last nine LaLiga outings, moving them to within two points of Atletico after the same number of matches.
Frenkie de Jong was presented with a glorious opportunity to open the scoring after 16 minutes when teed up by Jordi Alba for what appeared to be a back-post tap-in, but the Dutchman got his feet in a mix and Sergio Asenjo clawed the shot off the line.
Asenjo was then equal to a Messi shot at his near post and that looked to be a pivotal moment early on as Chukwueze had the ball in the net at the other end eight minutes later, the winger rounding Marc-Andre ter Stegen and tucking in.
But Griezmann levelled things up 87 seconds later with a sublime chipped finish over Asenjo and he doubled his tally soon after with a first-time shot after pouncing on a weak Juan Foyth back-pass that did not reach his keeper.
Griezmann would have had a hat-trick before the midway point if not for a low save from Asenjo, while Etienne Capoue was denied by a Ter Stegen save from the game’s next big moment just after the hour mark.
Villarreal were in the contest at that point, but Trigueros’ red card for catching Messi on the shin with a follow-through challenge left the Europa League semi-finalists with an even tougher task on their hands.
Barca were able to see out the final 25 minutes in a stress-free manner – De Jong failing to beat Asenjo from a one-on-one in the best of the remaining chances – to stay firmly in the title hunt.
What does it mean? Barca hot on Atleti’s heels
Barca have now taken 46 points from the 51 on offer this calendar year, compared to 38 points in one game less for Atletico.
There is no doubt that momentum is on the Catalan giants’ side, even accounting for their recent Clasico loss to fellow title contenders Real Madrid, who they sit level with on points with a game in hand.
Barca have a potential title-deciding showdown with Atleti on May 8, though Diego Simeone’s side have two games to play before then, including a trip to Athletic Bilbao later on Sunday.
Griezmann’s first goal was brilliantly taken and his second was all about gambling on Foyth making an error and calmly beating Asenjo, the France international scoring from two of his game-high five attempts before being withdrawn 10 minutes from time.
He has been directly involved in 22 goals in all competitions in 2021 (13 goals and nine assists) – only team-mate Messi (32) and Villarreal’s Gerard Moreno (24) have a higher tally among LaLiga players.
While Asenjo deserves praise for his great save to keep out De Jong with the game goalless, the Barca midfielder gave the opposition goalkeeper every chance of making the save by shooting down the middle of a half-empty goal.
De Jong fluffed another chance late on after being played in by Ousmane Dembele, though he can still be happy with his overall display, with nobody attempting more passes in the opposition half than his 40 – 92.5 per cent of which were successful.
Barcelona are back in LaLiga action with a home match against Granada on Thursday, the same day that Villarreal host Arsenal in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final.
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