Madrid (AFP) – Barcelona took a huge step towards their fifth Copa del Rey final in seven years with a 3-1 win over Villarreal in the first leg of their semi-final on Wednesday.
Lionel Messi opened the scoring from Luis Suarez’s cutback four minutes before the break, but Villarreal levelled shortly after half-time when Marc-Andre Ter Stegen failed to keep out Manu Trigueros’s drive.
However, Barca were back in front within a minute through Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique’s header 26 minutes from time made it 3-1.
The Catalans could have had an even healthier advantage to take into the second leg on March 4, but Neymar had his penalty saved by Sergio Asenjo.
Barca were camped in the Villarreal half for the first 45 minutes, but it took them some time to carve out chances against the massed ranks of the visitors’ defence.
Messi fired just over from Iniesta’s neat lay-off on the half-hour mark before Villarreal suffered an injury blow when captain Bruno was carried off to be replaced by Trigueros.
All of Villarreal’s good work was undone four minutes before half-time when Mateo Musacchio slipped to allow Suarez to rob possession and he squared for Messi to slot home his 11th goal in his last nine games.
The roles were reversed a minute later as this time Messi freed Suarez inside the box, but the Uruguayan drove his low shot beyond the far post.
For all their dominance, Barca nearly went in at the break level as Villarreal’s only threatening counter-attack of the half ended with Ter Stegen making a fine save to turn Luciano Vietto’s shot behind.
However, the young German goalkeeper was very much at fault when Villarreal did equalise just three minutes after half-time when he failed to keep out Trigueros’s thunderbolt from outside the area.
The visitors were only on level terms for a minute as Suarez again created the danger when he claimed to have been fouled inside the area by Mario Gaspar and Iniesta swept the loose ball into the far corner.
Another defensive error allowed Barca to extend their lead when Musacchio and Asenjo were caught flat-footed by Messi’s corner and Pique headed home unmarked at the far post.
Musacchio was also at fault seven minutes later when he handled as Messi tried to wriggle free inside the area.
The Argentinian had missed from the spot in the previous round against Atletico Madrid and handed the responsiblity to Neymar, but he too failed from 12 yards as Asenjo made a comfortable save low to his right.
Suarez nearly rounded off the evening with a stunning effort from just inside the Villarreal half, but the ball floated just wide with Asenjo beaten.