David Villa returns to fold as Messi’s partner
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Not so long ago, David Villa spent more time watching Lionel Messi lead Barcelona to victory than doing his part to help.
Then came his decisive goal against AC Milan, and now Wednesday’s clever back-heeled pass to set up Pedro Rodriguez for the decisive goal against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Almost lost in between Messi going on as a substitute on a sore right leg and Pedro’s pinpoint strike was Villa’s savvy, split-second decision to tap Messi’s pass to Pedro.
That touch of quality proved to be just as critical to Barcelona’s quest for a fourth European title in eight seasons as Villa’s curling strike to turn the previous series against Milan in Barcelona’s favor last month.
After Wednesday’s match, Villa joined in the praise being heaped on Messi for sparking Barcelona to life while still not fully recovered from his right hamstring injury after PSG forward Javier Pastore had scored.
Messi had only been cleared to play by team doctors an hour before kickoff, and Barcelona didn’t start him hoping they could cope without the four-time world player of the year.
“Leo is the best player in the world and on our team,” Villa said. “Messi changes everything by just being on the field. I want to thank him for the gesture of commitment he showed to the team, the club, and football in general.”
Pedro’s goal from the passing combination by Messi and Villa put Barcelona through on away goals.
Villa is Spain’s all-time leading scorer, but the 31-year-old striker had struggled to reclaim his spot in Barcelona’s starting lineup after returning from long layoff following a broken shin bone. There was even speculation that he might seek a transfer during in January.
All that has changed in less than three months.
Villa has gone from getting most of his minutes as a reserve or in the Copa del Rey to being a fixed starter as Barcelona makes its way to the Spanish league title and prepares for the Champions League semifinals.
The most telling shift has been his on-the field connection with Messi. Last September, Messi vented his frustration with Villa for not passing him the ball quickly enough during a game.
Fast forward to Feb. 23 after Villa and Messi had both scored to rally Barcelona to a 2-1 win over Sevilla. Messi said that Villa’s presence as a second clear scoring threat for the defense to take into account “opened up spaces” for him to exploit.
Then came Villa’s 55th-minute curling strike on March 3 to tilt the series against Milan in Barcelona’s favor after Messi had started the comeback by scoring twice. Barcelona went on to win the game 4-0, becoming the first team to overcome a 2-0 first-leg defeat in the Champions League.
Five days later against Rayo Vallecano, Villa scored from a pass by Messi before returning the favor and then some by setting up Messi to net two more in a 3-1 victory.
Barcelona, which leads the Spanish league by 13 points over Real Madrid, will know its next rival in the Champions League on Friday. Madrid and German pair Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are the other semifinalists.
“We’re very happy, after having suffered so much we know that that’s also a way to win,” Villa said. “The other three semifinalists are all very tough teams. We’ll fight as hard as possible against whichever one we are drawn against.”