Araujo key as Barcelona nab 16th shutout, extend LaLiga lead over Real Madrid

Pedri’s first-half strike was enough to help Barcelona beat Villarreal 1-0 at the Estadio de la Ceramica on Sunday as they moved 11 points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the LaLiga standings.

The only goal of the game arrived in the 18th minute after a good passing sequence involving Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and Pedri, who supplied the finishing touch past veteran goalkeeper Pepe Reina. Lewandowski and Raphinha missed chances to add a second for Barca, while Villarreal’s best chance was squandered by Jose Luis Morales just before the break.

The result marked Barcelona’s 16th clean sheet, the most in Europe’s top five leagues.

Rapid reaction

1. Unstoppable Barcelona extend LaLiga lead over Real Madrid

This was not Barca’s best performance of the season, but there was still plenty to like for coach Xavi Hernandez as his side opened up an 11-point lead at the top of the league. Real Madrid can cut the gap to eight if they win their game in hand against Elche on Wednesday, delayed due to their participation in the Club World Cup this week.

Pedri’s goal was enough to give Barca an eighth successive win in all competitions — their longest streak since October 2017 — but they could have already been ahead. They started the game full of intensity, pressing high and winning the ball back with great success. Lewandowski should have scored when one-on-one with Reina, but was denied. The Polish striker had another chance after Pedri’s goal but was again saved by Reina.

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Villarreal, led by ex-Barca coach Quique Setien, grew into the game, though. Morales’ chance was their best of the first half but they were on top for large spells of the second half, which Xavi will not have liked so much.

Still, Barca have conceded just seven league goals in 21 games for a reason this season, and center-backs Ronald Araujo and Andreas Christensen once again rose to the challenge.

2. Araujo key in Barca’s defensive record

The main reason Barca sit top of the league at this stage of the season is their remarkable improvement in defence. They conceded 38 goals last season, an average of one per game, but have leaked just 0.33 goals per match in the current campaign, keeping 16 clean sheets.

That can be attributed to the signings of Christensen and Jules Kounde along the back line and the form of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but Araujo is perhaps the standout performer in defence.

The Uruguayan made several key interceptions and challenges as Barca recorded a 1-0 win for the seventh time in LaLiga this season. No side in Europe’s top five leagues has more — Juventus sit second with six.

Araujo’s recovery pace is one of Barca’s major assets. It means if they lose the ball, they can bank on him to save them and snuff out counterattacks. He was booked against Villarreal, which means he will be suspended next weekend against Cadiz, but the positive spin on that is he will get a rest in between two grueling Europa League games against Manchester United.

3. Setien unable to best his former Barca side

Quique Setien missed his chance to get his own back on Barcelona, but his Villarreal side were far from disgraced. Setien was oft-criticised during an ill-fated eight months in charge of Barca in 2020 before he was fired after the 8-2 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich. Even though he would never admit it, Sunday’s game offered a small chance at personal redemption.

Having already beaten Real Madrid in LaLiga under Setien, Villarreal would have fancied their chances at home to Barca. They were not at the races for the first half an hour but did improve from there. Morales wasted their best chance, hitting the side netting after a poor pass from Pedri.

They continued to push until the end but Barca, with newfound defensive stability this season, held them at bay. There was no happy ending Setien, then, but he may feel vindicated in another way. Just two of Barca’s XI — Ter Stegen and Frenkie de Jong — were regulars during his time at Camp Nou, which, in a small way, illustrates just how many changes were needed to take Barca back to the top.

Best and worst performers

Best: Ronald Araujo, Barcelona

Yeremy Pino must be sick of the sight of the Barca defender. Every time he appeared to have found some space, Araujo turned up to nick the ball away.

Best: Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona

Perhaps the biggest benefactor of Barca’s switch to a midfield four, the Dutch midfielder is showing his ability to run games.

Best: Pepe Reina, Villarreal

At 40, the former Liverpool goalkeeper showed he can still compete at the top level with three decent saves from Lewandowski.

Worst: Francis Coquelin, Villarreal

Lost the midfield battle early on and was then forced off injured in the 36th minute after a late challenge on Franck Kessie.

Worst: Jose Luis Morales, Villarreal

Missed a golden chance to level in the first half. In his days at Levante, his pace regularly caused Barca problems, but he was unable to really trouble Araujo and Christensen.

Worst: Raphinha, Barcelona

The Brazilian has contributed goals and assists since Ousmane Dembele got injured but missed a good chance to seal the win in the second half.

Highlights and notable moments

Pedri scored for Barcelona in the 18th minute with a well-worked goal.

After the match: What the managers and players said

Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez on the result: It was tough — Villarreal go toe-to-toe with you, press high constantly, they want possession. We tried to play out from the back. We got into a lot of good areas but lacked that final pass or the decision making to sentence the game. And if you don’t score the second, you can suffer at the end. But it was a good performance at a tough stadium to come to. They are three important points in the fight for LaLiga.”

Villarreal manager Quique Setién on the result: “We knew beforehand we were up against a great team in great form. Almost everything is coming off for them. We had some chances that we did not take, which is what we have been lacking recently. But overall, I think a draw would have been fairer. I do have to admit they had 30 very good mins at the start when we couldn’t cope with them.”

Setién on why Barcelona are a difficult team to beat: “This Barca side is quick and technical… but what has changed a lot with them is without the ball. They are so intense without the ball and they forced us long several times. There was hardly a moment in the first half when we could play out comfortably from the back. The data is there, they are the team that runs the most without the ball.”

Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)

  • Barcelona’s 16 clean sheets are the most in Europe’s top 5 leagues (Juventus is second with 14).

  • Barcelona have won their last eight games in all competitions, six of them clean sheets. They last won eight on the bounce in in August-October 2017, when they eventually went for nine straight wins.

  • Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen has 17 clean sheets this season in all competitions, the most by a goalkeeper playing for a team from in Europe’s top 5 leagues.

  • Barcelona’s last loss in all competitions came on Oct. 26 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Their last loss in LaLiga was on Oct. 16 to Real Madrid.

  • This is Barcelona’s seventh victory by score of 1-0 in LaLiga this season. That breaks a tie with Juventus (6) for most wins by that score in Europe’s Top 5 Leagues this season.

  • Pedri has scored four goals in his last seven games with Barcelona in all competitions. He had three goals in his 22 previous games this season.

  • Villarreal are in the midst of their first three-game losing streak in LaLiga since February-March 2020.

Up next

Villarreal: El Submarino Amarillo return to LaLiga action next weekend when they head to Mallorca on Saturday, Feb. 18 (stream live at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+).

Barcelona: Barca face Manchester United in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League series on Thursday, Feb 16. at 12:45 p.m. ET. Then, Barcelona have a quick turnaround to host Cadiz on Sunday, Feb.19 in LaLiga (stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET).

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