Saviour Messi to the rescue, but Barca lose ground on Madrid

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Ligue 1 leaders Nice crashed out of the last 64 of the French Cup on Sunday after a 2-1 defeat at struggling Lorient, while Marseille won 2-1 at Toulouse after extra time

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Barcelona's forward Lionel Messi (L) celebrates with Neymar after scoring on January 8, 2017 play

Barcelona's forward Lionel Messi (L) celebrates with Neymar after scoring on January 8, 2017

(AFP)

Barcelona's poor start to 2017 continued as they lost further ground on Real Madrid at the top of La Liga despite a sensational last minute Lionel Messi free-kick salvaging a 1-1 draw at Villarreal on Sunday.

Ligue 1 leaders Nice crashed out of the last 64 of the French Cup on Sunday after a 2-1 defeat at struggling Lorient, while Marseille won 2-1 at Toulouse after extra time.

Italian forward Nicola Sansone looked to have handed Villarreal a first win over Barca since 2008, but Messi's late intervention denied the hosts on the day they announced a sponsorship deal to rename El Madrigal the Ceramic Stadium.

A draw leaves Villarreal still in fifth, a point adrift of Atletico Madrid in the final Champions League place.

"It can't be a positive analysis of the game because we needed the three points and I think we did enough to deserve the three points," Barca boss Luis Enrique told Spanish TV station Movistar.

However, Enrique insisted Barca remain very much in the title hunt despite their chances now depending on a Madrid collapse in the second half of the season.

"There is still half the season to go and I am sure we will have the chance to fight for the league," he added.

"The only chance we will have to fight for the title, though, is by getting back to winning soon. To keep playing like this but with a different result."

Barca dominated possession throughout, but struggled to create clear-cut chances against the tightest defence in La Liga.

Indeed it was the hosts who enjoyed the best opportunity of the opening half when former Barca midfielder Jonathan dos Santos blasted over when unmarked at the back post from a flowing counter-attack.

Messi came close in unusual fashion as his thumping header from a corner was tipped over by Sergio Asenjo before Luis Suarez's fiercely hit drive was also too close to the Villarreal 'keeper.

Another Villarreal counter-attack caught the Spanish champions cold at the start of the second-half as Alexandre Pato's perfectly weighted pass picked out Sansone and his effort back across goal nestled in the far corner.

Barca had a fine chance to immediately respond when a quickly taken Messi free-kick freed Neymar inside the area, but again the Brazilian's effort lacked the power or accuracy to unduly trouble Asenjo.

The visitors had huge claims for a penalty waved away when Villarreal captain Bruno deflected Messi's effort over with an outstretched hand and seconds later Messi smashed the inside the post with a fine effort from the edge of the box.

The controversial penalty calls were evened up as referee Ignacio Iglesias Villanueva was also unmoved when Sansone's shot struck Javier Mascherano's hand inside the Barca box.

And Messi finally broke Villarreal's resistence as he was fouled on th edge of the area and stepped up to arrow a free-kick perfectly into the top corner.

Villarreal ended with 10 men as Jaume Costa saw a second yellow card deep into stoppage time, but there was barely time to restart the game before blew for full-time and arguably brought the curtain down on Barca's title defence.

Elsewhere, Celta Vigo moved into the top half of the table as Iago Aspas moved level with Cristiano Ronaldo on 11 La Liga goals for the season in a 3-1 win over Malaga.

Athletic Bilbao remain seventh after being held 0-0 in a Basque derby at home to Alaves.

And Real Betis moved nine points clear of the relegation zone thanks to a 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Leganes.

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