Barça struck a psychological blow ahead of El Clásico in a breathless match containing five goals, a controversial red card and a 94th-minute winner from super-sub David Villa
Time was running out when David Villa did what David Villa does. It was the 94th minute and almost midnight when he picked the ball up on the edge of the area, played a one-two with Lionel Messi, stepped beyond Emir Spahic and, taking the ball on the bounce, thumped it past Andrés Palop. It is almost a year since he broke his leg in Japan, he missed Euro 2012, and he still hasn't completed a game, but he "completed" this one. It took him 10 minutes to score on his return for Spain and seven minutes to score on his return for Barcelona. In 116 minutes for his club, he's taken five shots, four of them on target, and he has scored three goals.
This was the biggest of them all, the one that really mattered. A week after that discussion with Messi, Villa completed the comeback, getting the goal that closed the game of the season so far. 1-0 down after 26 minutes, 2-0 down after 48, in the 88th Barcelona were trailing Sevilla 2-1. It had taken Míchel six games as a coach to beat Real Madrid; in his sixth against Barcelona he was about to beat them too. Sevilla were heading into joint second place and deservedly so, a force once more. Barcelona were going the same way as Madrid: home. Pointless. Five wins from five, their first defeat of the season closed in.
Six minutes later, it was six from six. Barcelona won 3-2. Fábregas, 2-2. Villa, 3-2. Villa raced to the corner. His team-mates raced after him, leaping on top. "¡Epico!" screamed the cover of El Mundo Deportivo. Elsewhere, they were screaming blue murder.
From two points to 11 points; from game on to game over. It doesn't work like that of course but you could be forgiven for thinking that it does. And, carefully totting up points that haven't even been played for yet, that was the way many greeted it. Lose and Barcelona would be within a defeat in next Sunday's Clásico of seeing their lead at the top reduced to just two points; win and Barcelona would be within a victory in next Sunday's Clásico of seeing their lead at the top extended to 11 points. Meanwhile, Madrid would face Deportivo under pressure. Sport's cover described it as "a morale blow for Real Madrid!" This was the "comeback of champions".
It was one of those games where it all happened so fast that you were begging the TV director to just leave well alone. Every time he stuck a replay on, he missed something. The trouble was, sticking on pointless replays is what TV directors in Spain do. Besides, he had so much to replay. The pitch was like a bowling lane, the ball skidding round so fast you could barely see it. The only thing quicker were Sevilla's players. Ping, ping, ping, crash. No time to draw breath. Barcelona's perfect start to the season had disguised the fact that their start to the season was far from perfect: now, they were swift and precise, the ball moved fast. This was Barcelona at their best. Sevilla were too. Two teams slugging it out. The way it's supposed to be.
The sense of breathlessness was increased by a referee with no breath. For 45 minutes Mateu Lahoz, whose surname handily translates as scythe, blew what he normally blows: nothing. Lahoz is José Mourinho's favourite referee because he lets the game flow. Even if there are fouls. Twice he happily waved play on as Barcelona players came crashing down on the edge of the area. Midway through the first half he had blown just four times; it took over an hour for him to give a foul against Barcelona. And so the game got faster and faster and faster. And then Sevilla scored.
Dani Alves invited Petr Trochowski to shoot, so he did. The man who got the winner against Real Madrid scored the opening goal, becoming only the second German ever to score against both Madrid and Barcelona. The first was Bernd Schuster. And, at the start of the second half Alvaro Negredo made it 2-0, dashing through to produce a lovely dink over Valdés. It took four minutes for Cesc Fábregas to make it 2-1 from the edge of the area. It took another 35 for him to score the equaliser and another six for Villa to get the winner. "I feel bitter over the result," Míchel said, "because we were excellent." He was right.
Sevilla-Barcelona was a partidazo, with fascinating sub-plots all over the pitch. All five goals were expertly taken. Alex Song was playing at centre-back but nobody appeared to have told him. Every time you looked up he was standing somewhere he shouldn't be. Every time you looked up, Hedwiges Maduro on the other hand was standing where he should: the Dutchman has given Sevilla solidity and sense in the middle. Botía and Spahic look like proper centre-backs. Ivan Rakitic is flying. Alvaro Negredo is in Good Negredo mode: he admitted that the atmosphere in Sevilla's dressing room has changed for the better. Míchel has found a system that works. And Jesús Navas is the same as ever, only faster – legs rotating like Road Runner.
On the other side, Fábregas's goals, both superb, were his first since February and his performance the best since he joined the club. Xavi and Sergio Busquets took control. Alexis Sánchez looks lost. As for Messi, he had a poor game – just the two assists and a free kick that Palop pushed away from just under the bar. Barcelona came from behind for the fourth time this season; Barcelona have not convinced but Tito Vilanova's changes, usually from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, are working. Half of their 24 goals this season have arrived in the last 15 minutes, after he has made substitutions. And then there was Villa. Still short of match fitness but there he was in 94th minute.
So much was happening, there was so much to focus on, that they did not know where to start. So they started where they always start: with the referee. If Barcelona and Sevilla seemed to be playing without a referee in the first half, Lahoz joined in for the second. He sent off Gary Medel with 20 minutes to go after the Chilean confronted Fábregas, leaning into him. More head-touch than head-butt. He then failed to see a handball from Thiago in the build up to Villa's winner. And later, he sent off Míchel for protesting. "I didn't call him 'shameless', no matter what his report says," the coach insisted.
Others did. The Seville-based newspaper El Correo moaned: "From scandal to scandal". "Nervión," added Estadio Deportivo, "does not drop points – but points are robbed from it." AS gleefully blew up the covers and echoed the complaints. El Mundo Deportivo fought back. On both sides of the divide it all started again; back into the trenches, chucking accusations and conspiracies around. You're the favoured ones, no you are. You're the cheats, no you are. Look at these stats; no, look at these ones. Anyone would think that there was a Clásico coming up.
Medel's red was, said Sevilla's official website, "ridiculous ... he hardly touched the Catalan, who threw himself to the floor, showing touches of comic acting that leave much to be desired." Fábregas didn't throw himself down, but perhaps he thought about it and he did stumble a few paces backwards holding his face. When he was asked about the card by Canal Plus' touchline reporter after the game, Fábregas replied: "he touched my face with his forehead ... if you like, I can do that to you and see what you think."
• It might not have been the best hat-trick ever – in fact it might have been one of the worst, comprising one header from two yards and two penalties – but it was still yet another hat-trick for Cristiano Ronaldo. That's 155 goals in 155 games for Real Madrid now. And … inevitable comparison alert … more hat-tricks than Messi has scored for Barcelona. Astonishing.
• Just when you thought things could not go any more wrong for Athletic, they lose the derby, sit a solitary point from the relegation zone, and on Monday morning an argument between Marcelo Bielsa and Fernando Llorente leads to the striker walking off the training pitch. This isn't going to end well. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that very soon, both men will be gone.
• Manucho arrived at Real Valladolid in 2009 promising to score 40 goals for the club. Two goals in a demolition of Rayo Vallecano this weekend (plus two assists) means that he's nearly there too. Just 30 to go.
• Málaga: one commentator put it succinctly: "It was just like watching Villarreal." They're in third and playing wonderfully.
Results: Valencia 2-0 Zaragoza, Málaga 4-0 Betis, Real Sociedad 2-0 Athletic, Sevilla 2-3 Barcelona, Granada 2-1 Celta, Valladolid 6-1 Rayo, Osasuna 4-0 Levante, Real Madrid 5-1 Deportivo, Epsanyol 0-1 Atlético, Getafe v Mallorca, tonight