Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde’s gamble in resting Lionel Messi backfired against lowly Villarreal and it took a Luis Suarez goal with the last kick of the game to rescue a point in a 4-4 draw.
The Argentina international was left on the bench for an hour as Valverde tried to give his star man a break with next week’s clash against second-placed Atletico Madrid followed by a Champions League quarter-final against Manchester United.
But they were heading for a first league defeat since November when they squandered a 2-0 lead to be 4-2 down in the 90th minute.
Messi drilled home a rasping free-kick before Suarez’s low, left-footed half-volley from a corner with three seconds remaining crept inside the post.
It ensured they hold an eight-point advantage over Atleti, who beat Girona 2-0 earlier in the evening, ahead of next weekend’s meeting.
Things seemed to be going to plan after Philippe Coutinho and Malcom’s first LaLiga goal put them 2-0 up inside 16 minutes but even then it was a far-from-convincing performance.
The league leaders struggled to keep possession and control the game and with Gerard Pique among the substitutes alongside midfielder Ivan Rakitic they looked vulnerable and were torn apart as the impressive Samuel Chukwueze, Karl Toko Ekambi, Vicente Iborra and substitute Carlos Bacca all scored.
Villarreal were the better side from the start and were unfortunate to be 2-0 down so quickly.
After just 12 minutes Malcom sprang the offside trap, broke down the right and his low cross was tapped in by Coutinho three yards out.
Malcom then popped up at the far post to head home Arturo Vidal’s cross and Coutinho should have put the result beyond doubt after only 19 minutes when he dinked the ball over goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo after being put in by Suarez but his shot rebounded back off the post.
It was to prove the turning point as midway through the half Santi Cazorla slipped a pass into Chukwueze who turned Jordi Alba and struck a shot against a post, reacting quickest to slot home the rebound with his left foot.
Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen had to be quick off his line to block Chukwueze’s shot after an angled run and although a 35-yard Suarez free-kick was tipped over in the last action of the half it was a rare Barcelona threat.
Five minutes after the break Ekambi embarrassed Ter Stegen after breaking down the right wing as when the goalkeeper tried to anticipate the cross the Cameroon international fired home from the narrowest of angles.
Messi was sent on in the 61st minute but before the Argentina international had touched the ball Villarreal were ahead as Iborra latched onto a through ball to steer past Ter Stegen.
Chukwueze forced the Barcelona goalkeeper to tip his shot onto the crossbar before another Cazorla through ball 10 minutes from time allowed Bacca to score the fourth.
Alvaro was sent off for a second bookable offence with five minutes remaining and up stepped Barca’s two big names to salvage something.
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