Barcelona came from two goals down to beat Villarreal 3-2 and stay in the Primera Division title race on an emotional night for the club. Playing their first game since the death of former coach Tito Vilanova, who succumbed to throat cancer aged 45 this week, Barça were subdued for much of the first half and trailed to a Ruben Cani goal scored on the stroke of half-time.
Manuel Trigueros then doubled the lead ten minutes into the second half, but two Villarreal own goals sparked a comeback as Gabriel Paulista and Mateo Musacchio inadvertently brought things level before Lionel Messi struck the killer blow seven minutes from time. The night began with a moment of remembrance with Vilanova's image shown on the big screens in tribute to the man who guided Barça to the title in 2013.
But the game itself was slow to get going. Dani Alves and Xavi were both off-target with chances for Barça before Messi made a run into the area before firing a low shot which Sergio Asenjo managed to scramble away. Moments later, Mario Gaspar ran through on Barça's goal but flashed a shot wide. It was the first of several warning signs for Barça, with the stretching Giovani Dos Santos inches away from turning Cani's cross into the net moments later.
Dos Santos then pulled the ball back to Aquino, whose shot beat the goalkeeper but was cleared off the line by Marc Bartra. Villarreal did score moments later, with the goal coming as the game moved into first-half stoppage time.
A fine ball from Jonathan Pereira picked out the run of Cani who opened up his body to stroke it into the far corner of the net. Barça were looking for a penalty five minutes into the second half when the goalkeeper cleaned out Alexis Sanchez, but the referee ruled the ball was already gone, awarding a corner and showing Sanchez a yellow card for his protestations.
A great run from Messi moments later ended with Asenjo palming away his bending shot, and he made another save to deny the Argentinian. It seemed Barça's pressure was building to a head, but out of nothing Villarreal doubled their lead as Aquinho's deep cross was met by Manuel Trigueros who headed it high into the net. Barça sought a response and Gerardo Martino sent on Cesc Fabregas and Cristian Tello in place of Sanchez and Xavi.
Barça fight back, with some help
It paid off, with Fabregas involved as they pulled a goal back in the 65th minute, playing in Pedro who in turn found the run of Dani Alves to drill in a low ball which was turned in by the unfortunate Gabriel Paulista. Dani Alves, having been involved in the goal, was then seen to pick up and eat a banana thrown on to the pitch as he was preparing to take a corner.
Another stroke of luck - and another own goal - brought Barça level in the 79th minute when Mateo Musacchio inexplicably headed in a cross from Dani Alves when under little pressure. Barça were now firmly on top and Asenjo did well to keep out a curling Messi free-kick in the 81st minute.
However, the Argentinian was on the scoresheet moments later. Sergio Busquets drove forward and then chipped a ball on to the head of Fabregas who laid it on a plate for Messi to fire home. Just as Barça were breathing a sigh of relief they had a huge scare when the referee appeared to award a penalty against them.
Busquets stretched to take the ball off the toes of Aquino. He appeared to take it cleanly, but the referee whistled for a foul and pointed to the spot before clarifying with his assistant that the incident occurred inches outside the area. Jose Pinto was less than convincing as Barça dealt with the late pressure from the hosts, but they emerged unscathed, and still in the title race.
Elsewhere, Athletic Bilbao strengthened their grip on Spain's fourth UEFA Champions League place for next season with a 3-1 win over Sevilla at San Mames. Markel Susaeta gave the hosts the lead in the opening five minutes before Iker Muniain and Ander Herrera increased their lead after half time. Diogo Figueiras was sent off for the visitors before Kevin Gameiro scored a late consolation. The Basques now lead Sevilla by six points with just three games remaining.