Lionel Messi struck twice as Barcelona beat Villarreal 3-1 at the Nou Camp tonight and moved provisionally above fierce rivals Real Madrid - who play Sporting Gijon tomorrow - at the top of the Primera Division table after 11 matches.
David Villa gave the Catalans the lead after 22 minutes and Pedro thought he had made it two shortly afterwards, but saw his effort ruled out by an offside decision. Nilmar quickly levelled for Villarreal but as he has done so often in the past, Messi came to the Catalans' rescue with a brilliant goal after 59 minutes and the Argentinian wrapped up the points with a second late on.
With Gerard Pique suspended and Gabriel Milito sidelined after picking up an injury in the midweek 5-1 win over Ceuta, Barça coach Pep Guardiola switched full-back Eric Abidal to central defence alongside captain Carles Puyol, who was playing his 500th competitive game for the club. Other than that it was a full-strength side for Barcelona, with Messi, Villa and Pedro up front and Xavi and Andres Iniesta pulling the strings behind them in midfield.
The hosts came into this match in second place, just a point behind leaders Madrid. Villarreal, in third, were only two further back and had not lost in the Primera Division since the opening weekend. Guardiola's side made the early running, though, and Diego Lopez made a great save low to his right to keep out Messi's header after 13 minutes. At the other end, Puyol's attempted clearance fell to Nilmar, but the Brazilian's shot was blocked after 21 minutes.
And a minute later, Barcelona took the lead. Iniesta's glorious threaded pass found Villa, who flicked the ball over a lunging defender and kept his cool to slide a low angled shot under Diego Lopez. Nilmar scored an equally impressive goal, getting away from Puyol in the area and clipping a precise low shot over Victor Valdes; the ball bounced off the post and into the goal.
Xavi curled a free-kick over the bar as the reigning Spanish champions looked to assert themselves in the second half, but the they were finding it difficult against a disciplined Villarreal rearguard. Abidal was pushed forward as Guardiola switched to a three-man defence. The Frenchman linked up well with Villa, who twice charged into the area on his own. Barça took the lead just short of the hour mark. Xavi laid off a quick ball to Messi from a free-kick and the Argentinian played two clever one-twos with Pedro on the edge of the box, latching on to the second to brilliantly clip a measured angled shot over Diego Lopez and make it 2-1.
Messi then made it three with seven minutes left. Pedro's shot deflected off Joan Capdevila and fell to the Argentinian, who poked the ball past Diego Lopez.