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imageMADRID: 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.

The Spanish champions lost their opening game of the year at Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey on Thursday and now trail Real by five points having also played a game more.

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 Ceramics Stadium.

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

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 edge of the area and stepped up to arrow a free-kick perfectly into the top corner.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Press), 2017

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