Lionel Messi scores the equaliser against Villarreal at Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday. The match ended 1-1
Barcelona: Lionel Messi rescued Barcelona a 1-1 draw at Villarreal with a sensational late free-kick in their La Liga clash on Sunday but could not prevent the champions finishing the weekend third in the table, five points behind leaders Real Madrid.
Messi bent a stunning free-kick into the top corner in the 90th minute after Villarreal's Italian forward Nicola Sansone finished off a breakaway to open the scoring in the 50th as they looked set to record a first home win over Barca in 11 years.
Barcelona have 35 points from 17 games, one behind Sevilla, and trail a Real Madrid side who beat Granada 5-0 on Saturday, are unbeaten in all competitions and have a game in hand.
Barca coach Luis Enrique made three changes to the team that lost a King's Cup last 16 first-leg game at Athletic Bilbao on Thursday and it was one of the players he recalled who made the fatal mistake that led to the opening goal.
France left back Lucas Digne lost possession in Villarreal's half and Alexandre Pato strode through the middle unopposed, teeing up Sansone to send the ball home off the far post.
Messi hit the post with a sumptuous shot and had a penalty appeal turned down when his effort was blocked by Villarreal captain Bruno Soriano's hand, while Barca's Javier Mascherano was also fortunate not to concede a spot kick for handball.
"There is still half the season to go and I am sure we will have the chance to fight for the league," Enrique said.
"The only chance we will have to fight for the title, though, is by getting back to winning soon. To keep playing like this but with a different result," he added.
Meanwhile, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic is determined to fight for his place at the Spanish champions after falling out of favour with coach Enrique, local media reported on Sunday.
The Croatia international, who was left out of the Sunday's squad, has not played a Liga game since December 3, although he did start in the 2-1 defeat at Athletic Bilbao in the King's Cup last 16 first leg on Thursday.
Rakitic, 28, was a regular starter in his first two seasons at the Nou Camp following a $26.31 million move from Sevilla in 2014 and scored the opening goal as Barca beat Juventus 3-1 in the 2015 Champions League final.
But he faces increased competition this season following the signings of midfielders Denis Suarez and Andre Gomes, though until his recent exclusion from the team he had started all of Barca's biggest games in La Liga and the Champions League.
Croatian newspaper Jutarnji reported on Sunday that the midfielder had agreed a move to Manchester City to link up with former Barca coach Pep Guardiola but the player's management team have denied in Spanish media that a deal has been struck.
Coach Enrique also rubbished the story, saying: "Most of the information in the media is not reliable, be it from Croatia, Spain or England. This has nothing to do with him not being in the squad."
The coach did not shed any light on why he had left the Croatian out, however, adding: "You can come to your own conclusions but picking squads and starting lineups is my job."
Rakitic is not the only player to suffer from an unexplained absence from the squad this season. Enrique has continually excluded right back Aleix Vidal from the squad even when first choice full back Sergi Roberto has been unavailable.
Meanwhile, Gerard Pique was spotted shouting at the Real Madrid-supporting La Liga president Javier Tebas after Sunday's match. Controversy struck in the second half, when Villarreal's Bruno Soriano stuck out an arm to divert a Messi shot over the bar.
Pique was incredulous and after remonstrating with the officials, he appeared to turn in the direction of the directors' box where Tabas was sitting and shout: "Did you see that? Yes, you, you!"
Tebas was in attendance for the game as a guest of honour because Villarreal were unveiling the new name for their Estadio de la Ceramica, previously known as El Madrigal.
Barca's vice-president Jordi Mestre called the handball "deliberate" after the game as the club, and players, increasingly feel that Real Madrid are being favoured by officials, with an example being the penalty awarded to Luka Modric last week despite it appearing he was pushed by his own teammate.