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Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba celebrate Barça's third goal of the evening. / MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB

FC Barcelona took a big step towards making another appearance in the final of the Spanish Cup by winning Wednesday night’s semi-final first leg over Villarreal by a score of 3–1. First-half goals from Leo Messi and Andrés Iniesta and a second-half score by Gerard Piqué will accompany the Catalans south for the return leg, set for 4 March at El Madrigal.

Monopoly

The opening half hour saw the blaugranes monopolise possession at a clip of nearly 70%. But despite keeping Villarreal from leaving their own end, Barça had trouble getting deep and were unable to muster a decent shot until the 29th minute when Iniesta dribbled in nicely on the left hand side and passed to Messi, the Argentinian one-timing it over the bar from 22 metres.

Barça broke the ice on 41 minutes as Luís Suárez stole an errant outlet pass, waltzed into the area all alone and then dished off to Messi who finished with aplomb. Four minutes later both Messi and Suárez barely missed a pair of close-range opportunities to extend the lead.

Away goal?

As the half drew to a close, Villarreal finally got out on the counterattack and, if not for a sensational save by a diving Marc André Ter Stegen, the visitors would have had an all-important away goal at a most opportune time.

Nevertheless, just three minutes after the break, that highly valuable goal did come for Villarreal. On 48 minutes, the ‘yellow submarine’ managed to get out on an odd-man counter once again, the rapid sequence ending with a pass back out in front of the area to Manu Trigueros, who fired a missile. The ball went straight at Ter Stegen but, wobbling like a beach ball on a windy day, it fooled the Barça netminder and got Villarreal on the scoreboard.

Reaction time

A minute later, Barça charged straight back down the other end where Iniesta cleaned up a rebound after a nice play by Suárez and shot into the back right corner of the net to put the Catalans on top 2–1 and settle the Camp Nou crowd. It was Iniesta’s third goal of the season, all of them coming in the Spanish Cup.

The game settled down for a quarter hour until a well-positioned Piqué converted a Barça corner kick by beating Villarreal keeper Sergio Asenjo with a header just inside the far post.

Five minutes later, with a comfortable 3–1 lead, the culers were awarded a penalty kick after Mateo Mussacchio was whistled for a hand-ball in the penalty area. But, with a chance to essentially put the semi-finals in the bag, Neymar’s penalty kick was brilliantly turned away by Asenjo. Barça will have wait a few weeks to finish the job.

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