Barcelona needed an overzealous tackle by an inexperienced Villarreal opponent to help keep its five-point lead at the top of the Spanish league on Sunday.
Barcelona were struggling to break down Villarreal until 22-year-old Daniel Rabaseda earned a direct red card for a studs-first tackle into the ankle of Sergio Busquets.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez took full advantage of the holes that opened up in the hosts’ defense, scoring twice to give Barcelona a 2-0 win away from home that kept it five points ahead of second-place Valencia.
“We were in control and the sending-off completely changed the match,” Villarreal coach Javier Calleja said. “He tried to go for the ball and arrived late. It was a foul, but I don’t think it was a red. It is easier to send off young players.”
Suarez finished off a quick passing combination, involving himself, Messi and substitute Paco Alcacer, by rounding goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo and tapping the ball home in the 72nd minute.
Messi then sealed the win with seven minutes to play when Busquets intercepted the ball near Villarreal’s area and passed for the Argentina forward to speed between two defenders and fire past Asenjo.
The goal took Messi’s league-leading tally to 14 for the season.
Apart from Gerard Pique’s header off the post early on, Villarreal had kept Barcelona in check until Rabaseda’s rash tackle with half an hour remaining.
Barcelona pressed the outnumbered Villarreal into its area and attacked repeatedly through left back Jordi Alba. Suarez sent a pass by Alba off the post minutes before he finally broke the deadlock.
Villarreal was the more dangerous team in the first half. Only a reflex save by Marc-Andre ter Stegen kept out Roberto Soriano’s bouncing volley in the 16th.
Ernesto Valverde’s side remained undefeated through 15 rounds. The win also ended Barcelona’s run of two consecutive draws at Valencia and against Celta Vigo that had let rivals chip into its lead.
Barcelona remained six points ahead of third-place Atletico Madrid, and eight ahead of defending champions Real Madrid. Both Valencia and Madrid won on Saturday.
“The victories by our rivals spurred us on,” Valverde said.