Barcelona overcame 10-man Villarreal 2-0 to extend their unbeaten La Liga run to 15 games.
Two second half goals helped a Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona overcome 10-man Villarreal 2-0 to extend their unbeaten La Liga run to 15 games, going five points clear at the top in the process.
The first half was a bitterly disappointing affair, with both sides' piling injury list showing as both teams relied on scraps in a half where quality in the final third was rare. Gerard Pique cannoned a header off the post within the first few minutes, but then the hosts seemed to take a hold of the game from there.
Villarreal midfielder Roberto Soriano was the Yellow Submarine's main threat, seeing an acrobatic effort well saved by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and firing one shot wide from just out the side box. The Italian also latched onto a cross, but failed to get full contact on the ball as Barca failed to get a rhythm.
The La Liga leaders improved towards the end of the half, with Lionel Messi once again finding the spark by twice going close, once from a free kick and then pinging a shot just wide as Barca were frustrated in the opening 45 minutes and limited to hopeful efforts.
The second period continued in the same manner until Messi again went close, seeing a first time shot from Jordi Alba's pass go agonisingly past the post, before Villarreal went down to ten men.
Daniel Raba's sliding challenge caught Sergio Busquets late, and the referee was quick to show a straight red as the home players protested furiously. Replays appeared to show that even though it was rash, a straight red may have been harsh as the Villarreal midfielder's momentum appeared to take him into Busquets, who went down in agony.
The sending off pretty much turned the game in the visitors favour as Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez went very close to opening the scoring, hitting the side netting and post respectively. The breakthrough did finally come with 20 minutes left, an outstanding quick passing move on the edge of the box saw sub Paco Alcacer play in Luis Suarez, and the Uruguay forward coolly rounded Sergio Asenjo to score in a fine example of Barca at their very best.
It was chance after chance for Ernesto Valverde's side, with Villarreal going close from a long range shot by Trigueros which was well saved by Ter Stegen. Ultimately though, Villarreal would be the ones to eventually gift the points to their visitors as shocking play from a goal kick saw them give the ball straight to Sergio Busquets, who in turn played in Lionel Messi and the Argentine did what he does best, cooling slotting home to assure the three points went home to Catalonia.
It was certainly a hard fought win for Barcelona, who had struggled for much of the game to find a way through until the controversial sending off. The Catalans next outing is at home to Deportivo next Sunday before a trip to the Bernabeu for El Clasico the week after as they look to go into the new year unbeaten in all competitions.