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No rest for Ernesto: Barcelona lose Messi - and their much-needed edge - in narrow win over Villarreal

00:11 EAT 25/09/2019
Lionel Messi vs Villarreal
The Argentine's first start this season was meant to dig the under-fire boss out of a hole, but the skipper was gone almost as quickly as he returned

Barcelona won, but the queasy feeling around the club remains.

They beat Villarreal 2-1 to get back on track in La Liga after their weekend collapse at Granada, but saw captain Lionel Messi go off injured at half-time after starting his first game of the season on Tuesday.

Valverde insisted on the eve of the game that his future was not at stake now more than ever before, that coaches always have something on the line.

The former Athletic Club boss said Barcelona could climb out of crisis as easily as they plunged in, with two victories from their next two games - against Villarreal and on Saturday at Jose Bordalas’s hard-boiled Getafe.

Even if they fulfil the coach’s ask by winning at the Alfonso Coliseum Perez on Saturday, unless they do it in emphatic style the question marks will remain.

This display at Camp Nou was underwhelming and unconvincing - simply undercooked.

For the first time this season Valverde was able to line up with Messi in the side, fresh from Milan, where he was crowned the best player in the world by FIFA on Monday night.

Football’s king and midfielder Frenkie de Jong were also part of the world XI, although the latter was not part of Valverde’s starting line-up, sitting on the substitutes' bench for the first time this season.

De Jong had been the one player to take responsibility after the 2-0 defeat by Granada last weekend that left Barcelona eighth in La Liga with seven points from the first five games.

He was the best on show in Granada too, so Valverde’s decision was a curious one - and one he reversed in the second half as Barcelona looked for more control.

The game started with Messi determined to make an instant mark in his first appearance at Camp Nou since May.

The Argentine whipped a dangerous corner in to the near post, where Antoine Griezmann glanced a header in off the crossbar.

Just six minutes into his first start and Messi was already back showing why the world’s coaches, captains, media and fans voted him the best player in the world.

The second goal was all Arthur’s doing, though, with the Brazilian rifling in a long-range strike after 15 minutes to double his personal tally for the season.

Last year the midfielder might have added more goals - any at all, netting precisely none in 44 appearances - and he’s putting that to rights this time around.

The game changed in the space of a few minutes.

Santi Cazorla pulled Villarreal back into the game with a swirling strike from distance that fooled Marc-Andre ter Stegen and made the German look foolish.

Then Messi, who had been treated for what looked like an adductor injury, as opposed to a recurrence of the calf injury that he suffered in pre-season, was taken off at half-time for Ousmane Dembele.

Although the Frenchman created two chances in the first minutes after coming on, spurned by Griezmann and the ineffective Luis Suarez, his return wasn’t a spectacular one.

Barcelona fans watched nervously through the second half as their weak defence just about protected the lead.

Cazorla’s swerving effort meant Barcelona have failed to keep a clean sheet even once this season in La Liga, with the back-line a clear worry.

The only cheer for supporters came in the form of 16-year-old forward Ansu Fati, who replaced Suarez and brought some spark to a nervous yet uninspiring second half.

This wonderkid is a light in the gloom, with Messi’s injury and the performance as a whole showing Barcelona have a long way to go before Valverde can rest easy.