Lionel Messi came off the bench to help Barcelona battle back from 4-2 down in stoppage time to snatch a remarkable 4-4 draw at struggling Villarreal on Tuesday.
The Catalans avoided a first league loss since November with a last-gasp Luis Suarez strike after captain and top scorer Messi gave them hope with a deadly free kick in the 90th minute.
The draw resulted in Barca’s lead over nearest challengers Atletico Madrid, who had earlier won 2-0 at home to lowly Girona, being trimmed to eight points ahead of Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash at the Nou Camp.
Even without Messi, Gerard Pique and Ivan Rakitic in their starting line-up, the visitors still strolled into the lead through a Philippe Coutinho goal in the 12th minute, which Brazilian forward Malcom soon doubled with a header.
But Villarreal, who began the game hovering one point above the relegation zone, hauled themselves into contention when 19-year-old Samuel Chukwueze, recently crowned Nigerian young player of the year, struck midway through the first half.
In-form striker Karl Toko Ekambi took advantage of slack positioning from Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen to equalise soon after the interval and Vicente Iborra completed the home side’s remarkable revival just after the hour mark.
Messi was called from the bench to rescue the champions but instead Villarreal increased their lead with a strike from their substitute Carlos Bacca following a sumptuous pass from former Arsenal playmaker Santi Cazorla.
Alvaro Gonzalez was then given his marching orders for Villarreal with four minutes remaining, allowing Messi and Suarez to strike for Barca in stoppage time and produce a remarkable finish to an enthralling contest at the Ceramica.