Good afternoon! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole
for today's match as Barcelona
at the Camp Nou. Both sides have plenty left to fight for this season, with Barca looking to steal a march on Real Madrid in the title race and Villarreal still in the running for a top-four spot, so this should be a very interesting contest today. First, though, let's have a look at the team news...
BARCELONA STARTING XI:
Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Digne; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
BARCELONA SUBS: D Suarez, Turan, Cillessen, Mascherano, Alcacer, Alba, Gomes
VILLARREAL STARTING XI: Fernandez; Gaspar, Musacchio, Gonzalez, Costa; Dos Santos, Hernandez, Trigueros, Soriano; Bakambu, Soldado
VILLARREAL SUBS: Adrian, Sansone, Castillejo, Rukavina, Bonera, Borre, Barbosa
What can we make of those two teams, then? Well, as ever with Barcelona the eye is immediately drawn to that incredible front three of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, all of whom start again this afternoon. Messi's goal against Real Madrid in the recent El Clasico could well prove to be the defining moment of Barcelona's season should they go on to win the title this term, and he has nine goals in his last nine league starts against Villarreal - five of which have come at home.
Neymar has also enjoyed himself against Villarreal since arriving in Spain, scoring eight goals against the Yellow Submarine across all competitions. That tally makes them his joint favourite opponents and, while this term hasn't been as goal-laden as last year for the Brazilian, he may fancy his chances of adding to his tally today. Suarez always fancies his chances of scoring, and the Uruguayan has notched the first goal of a game on a league-high nine occasions this season.
The main news from Barcelona's selection today is that Andres Iniesta returns to the starting XI having missed the last two games with a groin injury. He passed a late fitness test ahead of this match and is brought straight back into the side as Andre Gomes drops to the bench. That is one of two changes made by Enrique, with Jordi Alba also left on the bench as Digne comes into the team.
There are no further changes from Luis Enrique
today, which means that Javier Mascherano is left on the bench once again as Umtiti is given the nod to partner Pique at the heart of the defence once again. Sergi Roberto continues on the right with Vidal sidelined for the remainder of the season, while further forward both Busquets and Rakitic also retain their places in the starting XI.
Villarreal may not be quite as star-studded as that Barcelona side, but they can be very dangerous themselves and Fran Escriba
has stuck with a front two of Cedric Bakambu
and Roberto Soldado for today's game. Soldado has spent much of the campaign on the sidelines due to injury but has worked his way back into the team since his return to fitness, while Bakambu's brace against Sporting Gijon last time out took him into double figures for the league season.
That tally makes Bakambu Villarreal's top La Liga scorer this term, which with only 10 goals may be an area of concern for Fran Escriba
. It is a lower tally that you might expect for a team still in with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League, but there are goals elsewhere in the team too. Soriano, for example, has nine goals to his name in the league this term so is only just behind Bakambu in the scoring stakes.
Fran Escriba has made three changes to the side that beat Sporting Gijon last time out, with one of those being an enforced one in the middle of the park. Bruno is sidelined with a knee injury for today's game and so drops out to be replaced by Trigueros alongside Hernandez in midfield. The other two switches come in defence as Angel and Bonera drop out to be replaced by Costa and Musacchio.
Elsewhere it is all the same from that win over Gijon, which means that Fernandez continues between the sticks while Gaspar and Gonzalez make up the back four alongside the replacements Musacchio and Costa. Alongside the likes of Bakambu, Soldado and Soriano, Dos Santos should offer more of an attacking threat for the visitors down the flank, particularly if they can get quick ball to him while the Barca full-backs are still up the field.
This is by no means a foregone conclusion for Barcelona, despite the odds making them fairly heavy favourites. Barcelona are expected to win pretty much every match at home, but Villarreal are a good side with plenty left to fight for this season so the hosts are likely to be in for a difficult afternoon here. They are in desperate need of a win themselves, though, and with that front three you still have to back them to get it.
Victory would take Barcelona three points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the table, piling the pressure back on Los Blancos ahead of their away match against Granada later tonight. The Spanish giants have been trading top spot for some time now, but it is a position that Barcelona can only lose today if they fail to win this match. They are currently above Madrid courtesy of their superior head-to-head record.
The concern for Barcelona - and the reason why Real Madrid are still favourites to win the title - is that Los Blancos have a game in hand over Luis Enrique
's side, which could make all the difference. After this game Barcelona will take on Las Palmas and Eibar in their final two outings of the season - both teams with very little to play for - while Madrid still need to play Granada, Sevilla, Celta Vigo and Malaga.
There are some tough matches in that run-in for Madrid and it is entirely feasible that they could drop points in some of them, so Barcelona's job right now is to just keep winning so that they are in a position to capitalise on any slip-ups that may occur. Defeat to Malaga last month was a setback, followed by another loss to Juventus in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but since then Barca are unbeaten in five, with four wins.
Barca have been particularly free-scoring of late too, netting 16 goals in their last four La Liga games - a rate of four per match. That average was helped by a 7-1 drubbing of Osasuna, but they have predictably been very dangerous in front of goal all season. Indeed, they are the highest scorers in Europe's top five leagues with a whopping 104 goals to their names - three of which came in the derby victory over Espanyol last time out.
Barca have won seven of their last eight league outings and have only lost twice in their last 28, with 21 wins in that time allowing them to keep the pressure on Madrid. They have been particularly strong at home too, going 24 matches unbeaten here at the Camp Nou stretching all the way back to a shock 2-1 defeat at the hands of Alaves. That is their only home defeat of the season across all competitions, though.
In La Liga alone Barca have won their last 10 home outings, which is their best run under Luis Enrique. The last visiting team to avoid defeat at the Camp Nou was Real Madrid when they drew 1-1 back in December, and Barca's unbeaten home league run stretches back even further to 15 matches. They have also scored 42 goals during their ongoing 10-match winning streak, and the mathematicians amongst you won't need me to tell you that that equates to an average of 4.2 per game.
A daunting task for a team like Villarreal - or indeed any visitors, then. However, the Yellow Submarine come into this match in decent form and, perhaps just as importantly, have fared fairly well against the bigger sides away from home this season. Only last Tuesday Villarreal beat Champions League semi-finalists Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon, while they have also drawn at Real Madrid and Sevilla this season.
The concern for Villarreal today will be how to stop Barcelona's free-scoring attackers from breaching their defence. The visitors have only kept two clean sheets in their last eight outings, but they have also only conceded nine goals in that time and their overall defensive record this season is impressive. Villarreal have conceded just 28 goals - second only to Atletico Madrid - while they have also kept nine clean sheets away from home - only Barcelona have kept more.
Villarreal have won five of their last six league outings coming into this one, including each of their last three. Another victory today, aside from being a major scalp for Villarreal, would see them string together four wins in a row for the first time since a run of six in January 2016. The team has shown a lot of improvement recently too, with eight wins from their last 11 league games - as many as they had managed in their previous 20.
Villarreal will need to maintain that form if they are to chase down a spot in the top four over the closing weeks of the campaign, but it looks to be a tough ask for them. The Yellow Submarine are currently six points adrift of Sevilla and, if they lose today as expected, then they would have just two games to make that gap up. Sevilla slipped up on Friday night by only managing a 1-1 draw, but they may still have done enough to claim that last Champions League place.
First and foremost Villarreal will be bidding to secure a certain place in any European competition next season. They currently sit in the only automatic Europa League place in the division, but they are also only a point clear of Athletic Bilbao. Villarreal take on Deportivo and Valencia in their next two games after this one, whereas Sevilla have a tricky couple of games against Real Sociedad and Real Madrid before ending the campaign at home to rock-bottom Osasuna.
Villarreal are in good form on the road this season, with only the top three having amassed more away points than Fran Escriba's side. Since November Villarreal have only lost three of their 15 away games across all competitions, while they have won six of their last eight - double the number of wins they had managed in their previous 18 away games stretching back to last season.
Villarreal have conceded a league-low 10 goals on the road this season, but they have also only scored 17 at an average of one per game - only the 13th best record in the division. Only Real Madrid and Barcelona have scored the first goal in a game more often this season, and today it is likely to be very important as Villarreal have struggled to come from behind with Granada the only team to have amassed fewer points from losing positions.
PREDICTION: Right, we're 10 minutes away from kickoff, which means that it is time for a prediction! Both teams could really do with a win today, but it is hard to back against Barcelona and the Camp Nou and, with their need for victory slightly more pressing than Villarreal's I am going for a 2-0 home win.
Barcelona have unsurprisingly dominated this fixture in recent years, going unbeaten in their last 15 La Liga meetings since March 2008, when Villarreal picked up a 2-1 win through goals from Senna and Tomasson. The last two meetings have ended as draws, though, both of which came at Villarreal.
Villarreal have only won one of their last 14 visits to the Camp Nou - that 2-1 victory from 2008, and they more recent record is particularly poor with six defeats in a row here across all competitions. The most recent of those came in November 2015, when Neymar scored twice and Suarez converted a penalty in a 3-0 win.
The reverse of this fixture earlier this season ended 1-1, although Barcelona needed a late equaliser from Messi to salvage anything from the game. The Argentine maestro popped up with a stoppage time strike which could end up being a vital point in this thrilling title race.
Right, the players are on their way out now and we're almost ready to go here. It is a huge match in both the title race and top-four battle, so who will come out on top?
KICKOFF: A little later than planned due to a pre-match presentation, Barcelona get us underway at the Camp Nou.
As expected, Barcelona have taken control of possession in the opening exchanges as they look to settle into the game. They are knocking it about at their own pace, with Villarreal struggle to get a foot on the ball in the opening few minutes.
Better from Villarreal as they start to settle into things themselves. They pin Barcelona back deep inside their own half, forcing Pique into a big clearance.
Apologies, we're having some technical issues here but you haven't missed much. Villarreal have squandered a good attacking platform, though, with Dos Santos dispossessing Digne in a good position only to see his low ball into the box cleared away.
YELLOW CARD! Sergi Roberto picks up an early yellow card for a cynical challenge on Soriano, stopping a counter-attack in its tracks.
Barca have controlled possession from the very first whistle in this one, but Villarreal have so far been untroubled. No magic from that Barcelona front three just yet.
YELLOW CARD! Alvaro Gonzalez joins Roberto in picking up a first-half yellow card for a handball right on the edge of the area. Free kick in a very dangerous position...
SAVE! Messi just tries to clip the ball over the wall, but he doesn't put enough pace on it and in the end it is an easy save for the keeper.
GOAL! Barcelona 1-0 Villarreal (Neymar)
Barcelona have the breakthrough, and it is Neymar who scores against Villarreal once again! The MSN are all involved as Suarez plays the ball into the box for Messi, who tries to go for goal himself. His effort deflects off a defender and falls perfectly for Neymar, who takes a touch before poking it past the keeper from close range.
That is a big goal for Barcelona to get relatively early. It should ease any tension or nerves there were around the Camp Nou during what is a huge match for them.
Villarreal will be relatively pleased with how they have played so far, despite the scoreline. Only a stroke of bad luck has seen them fall behind, and they are very much in this game.
Almost an own goal from Pique as he puts the ball over his own crossbar after Ter Stegen had come out to claim it. There was a breakdown in communication between the pair of them there, but they got away with it.
CHANCE! Half a chance for Barcelona as Rakitic threads a pass into the box for Messi, who instantly brings it under his spell before getting it out of his feet and dragging an effort wide of the target.
GOAL! Barcelona 1-1 Villarreal (Cedric Bakambu)
Big goal in the title race as Villarreal level things up just after the half-hour mark! It is dreadful defending from Barcelona as they look to play Bakambu offside pretty much on the halfway line. A simple pass beats that trap and sends Bakambu clean through on goal, and he keeps his nerve to slot a finish past Ter Stegen at the near post.
That goal was avoidable from Barcelona's point of view, but it is also a sign of just how quickly Villarreal can break. Bakambu has the pace advantage over Pique and Umtiti, so to play such a high line there was suicide and they were duly punished.
Poor from Ter Stegen as he comes a long way off his line only to give an attempted clearance straight to Trigueros. The Villarreal midfielder's touch lets him down though, preventing him from catching the Barca keeper off his line.
Barcelona are not at their best today. There have been a couple of shaky moments at the back and they haven't been their usual selves going forward either, although we must also give credit to Villarreal for that.
CHANCE! Big chance for Barcelona to regain their lead! Messi stands a lovely cross up to the back post where Pique is waiting, still forward from a corner shortly before. The defender has the goal gaping in front of him, but he just can't stretch enough to steer it on target.
CHANCE! Villarreal should be ahead here! Soriano whips a good first-time cross into the middle and Soldado is completely unmarked courtesy of some more lax defending from the hosts. The former Tottenham man should do better, but he can only glance a header wide of the target.
CHANCE! This is end-to-end stuff at the moment! Barcelona respond with a good chance of their own as Suarez plays the ball to Neymar down the left channel, but the Brazilian drags his effort wide of the far post.
Almost another chance for Barca as the ball falls to Suarez inside the area, although unusually the Uruguayan is a little hesitant. That allows Alvaro to get a foot in, and the final touch comes off Suarez too so it will be a goal kick.
SAVE! Trigueros lines up a free kick from a long way out and fires it towards goal, but it takes a deflection on its way through and that makes it easy for the keeper.
GOAL! Barcelona 2-1 Villarreal (Lionel Messi)
What a time for Barcelona to restore their lead, and it is a 50th goal of the season for Messi! The forward dances past one defender on his way to the edge of the box before firing a deflected effort into the bottom corner. He has now scored in 11 consecutive home league games!
HALF TIME: Barcelona 2-1 Villarreal
The referee brings an end to the first half at the Camp Nou and it is Barcelona who go into the break with the lead courtesy of that Messi goal right on the stroke of the interval. Barca have by no means had things all their own way, though, and Villarreal are still in with a shout of coming away from the Camp Nou with something today.
The opening goal arrived after 21 minutes, and it came in fortuitous fashion for the hosts too. Barcelona's front three were all involved, with Suarez racing down the right flank before crossing the ball to Messi inside the area. The Argentine's shot deflected into the path of Neymar, who was just about onside, and he took a touch before poking his finish into the bottom corner.
Barca have not been completely dominant, though, and Villarreal levelled things up shortly after the half-hour mark when Cedric Bakambu made the most of Barca's ludicrously high line. The striker raced through on goal and kept his composure to stroke his finish past the keeper at the near post.
Messi ensured that it would be advantage Barcelona at the interval with the last kick of the half, although it came via a stroke of luck once again. Messi did well to dance his way into a shooting position, but his eventual effort took a deflection on its way into the bottom corner - his 50th goal of the season.
KICKOFF: Villarreal get us back underway for the second half!
Almost a perfect start to the second half for Barcelona as Neymar skips past his man down the right flank, reaching the byline before looking to find Messi in the middle. The keeper cuts it out, though, and manages to prevent it from going out for a corner too.
The goals from Neymar and Messi mean that the attacking trio of Barcelona have now scored 100 goals for the season across all competitions, by the way - the third year in a row that they have achieved that.
Barcelona will want a third goal to give them a bit of breathing space here, particularly after seeing how quickly Villarreal can strike through the likes of Bakambu.
A good spell of possession ends with Iniesta threading a lovely pass through for the overlapping Digne, but the full-back's subsequent cross is way too heavy for Suarez in the middle.
Almost a shooting opportunity for Barcelona as Suarez finds himself in a bit of space inside the box, but he is quickly closed down and his effort is well blocked.
Interesting corner from Villarreal as Trigueros drops a corner right on to Soriano around 30 yards from goal. The winger attempts a first-time volley, but I don't think even he believed he could score from there and a tame effort bounces easily into the arms of the keeper.
If Barcelona needed a lift over the final half an hour or so, they may get one if the Real Madrid team news leaks onto the pitch. Los Blancos will be without Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema for their game against Granada tonight.
SAVE! Fine save from Fernandes to keep his side in this game! Neymar lays the ball up for Messi who hammers a shot towards goal with his right foot, but the keeper reacts well to turn it over the crossbar.
SHOT! Rodri tries his luck at the other end, letting fly from a long way out, but his effort is high and wide of the target.
Barcelona continue to probe for another way through as we enter the final half an hour of this match. They know that a one-goal lead may not be enough against this Villarreal side.
YELLOW CARD! Iniesta goes into the book, very much taking one for the team there. He slides in to halt Villarreal in a good position, but the visitors now have a dangerous free kick...
SHOT! Dos Santos is the man who goes for goal, but his effort flies a couple of yards over the crossbar and the keeper had it covered anyway.
Barcelona are still dominating possession, but there have been enough occasions already this afternoon for Villarreal to think they still have a chance here.
GOAL! Barcelona 3-1 Villarreal (Luis Suarez)
There is the full set! Barcelona's attacking trio are all now on the scoresheet as Suarez gives his side the two-goal cushion they craved. It is fine work from the striker, who cuts in from the right flank before beating Alvaro and hammering a powerful low strike past the keeper. Fernandez got a hand to the ball, but there was too much on it for him to keep it out.
It is a long way back for Villarreal now. They were still in the game at 2-1, but it is hard to see them recovering from a two-goal deficit in the final 20 minutes here.
YELLOW CARD! Soldado is the latest player in the book for bundling over Messi.
VILLARREAL SUBS: Double change from the visitors as Nicola Sansone and Samu Castillejo replace Soldado and Soriano.
BARCELONA SUB: Barca respond with a change of their own as Jordi Alba comes on in place of Digne.
CHANCE! Big chance for Barcelona to put this game to bed once and for all! They come sweeping forward and Neymar finds himself with only the keeper to beat down the left flank, but his finish lacks conviction and the keeper makes a comfortable save in the end.
CHANCE! Barcelona really haven't looked convincing at the back today. A ball over the top entices Ter Stegen off his line, but Bakambu is able to nudge the ball past him. Pique then takes a risk by not immediately clearing it, but the hosts just about survive.
BARCELONA SUB: Another change for the hosts sees Javier Mascherano come on in place of Sergi Roberto.
PENALTY TO BARCELONA!
GOAL! Barcelona 4-1 Villarreal (Lionel Messi, penalty)
Cool as you like from Messi. He pulls out a Panenka-style penalty to put the game beyond Villarreal once and for all, and Messi has a brace for the sixth home league game in a row. The penalty itself is controversial, given for a handball when it looked as though it struck the defender in the chest, but Messi was not in a merciful mood and scores a fourth for the hosts.
BARCELONA SUB: Another change from the home side sees Ivan Rakitic replaced by Andre Gomes.
Neymar also came up with an outrageous piece of skill in the build-up to that penalty, flicking the ball over his marker before lifting it into Suarez. That in itself deserved a goal.
SAVE! Iniesta looks to join the big-hitters on the scoresheet as the ball falls to him outside the area, but his effort is comfortably saved.
SHOT! Barcelona win the ball back high up the pitch and Suarez immediately goes for goal, but he fires his shot a yard or so wide of the target.
There will be three of minutes of added time at the end of this match as Dos Santos weaves his way into shooting space before drawing a routine stop from Ter Stegen.
FULL TIME: Barcelona 4-1 Villarreal
Barcelona run out fairly comfortable winners in the end, then, as Neymar, Messi and Suarez are all on the scoresheet in a 4-1 win over Villarreal. The hosts didn't have things all their own way in the first half, but Messi's goal on the stroke of half time sent them into the break ahead after Bakambu had earlier cancelled out Neymar's opener. Suarez then added a third in the second half before Messi capped off the scoring with a cheeky Panenka penalty.
Right, that is all we have time for this evening! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole
for tonight's La Liga clash as Barcelona move three points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the table with a 4-1 win over Villarreal. I will leave you with our match report
, and be sure to stick with us for coverage of Real Madrid's upcoming match against Granada as Los Blancos aim to respond. From me, though, it is goodbye for now!