FC Barcelona ensured that the gap to league leaders Real Madrid remained at six points with a magnificent 2-0 win at home to Athletic Bilbao. After Jose Mourinho’s side dispatched Osasuna 5-1, the pressure was on the Blaugrana to not only emerge victorious, but to dominate their opposition, and they didn’t disappoint. The match was played at a ferocious tempo, dictated by the constant pressure employed by the Barcelona players, and their lightning quick tiki-taka style. Despite dominating the first half, Barcelona had to wait until the 40th minute for the break-through, with Andres Iniesta finishing emphatically at the near post to give Barca the lead heading into the break. Marcelo Bielsa responded by bringing on a few of the "big guns", but Barcelona continued to dominate, and got their second from the penalty spot, with Lionel Messi converting after Cristian Tello was fouled by Javi Martinez. Athletic never gave up, nearly pulling one goal back on the 80th minute with their first shot of the match, but Barcelona responded and finished the match the stronger, nearly adding a third in added on time. Ultimately, we learnt two things tonight: La Liga is far from over, and secondly, AC Milan better watch out on Tuesday. Barcelona are back to their best.
Both sides made multiple changes from after their exertions midweek in UEFA competition, as Xavi, Seydou Keita and Carles Puyol dropped to the bench, with Thiago Alcantara, Cristian Tello and Adriano all starting in what was a strong Barcelona line-up despite the upcoming Champions League match with AC Milan. Athletic Bilbao on the other hand were forced into a few more changes, with Marcelo Bielsa deciding that a few key players were not fit to start after their efforts just 48 hours previous against Schalke.
Barcelona started the match brightly, pressing high-up the field as they looked to take advantage of any tiredness in the Bilbao XI. Dani Alves got the ball rolling with the first shot of the match: a long-range effort that actually went on target, forcing a decent save from Gorka Iraizoz, who parried the effort to his right, only for Barcelona to send that ball straight back into the box. Gerard Pique couldn’t keep his effort down, but it was a declaration of intent from the Blaugrana as early as the fifth minute.
Barcelona did find the back of the net as early as the seventh minute, but unfortunately Thiago had just strayed offside before applying the finish. It was a fabulous move, as Lionel Messi lifted a deft chip over the static Bilbao defense that Alves toe-poked to Thiago, who applied the finish only for the flag to go up for offside. The move deserved a goal, but the assistant did make the correct decision.
From that point onwards, chances were a little more difficult to come by, but Barcelona were dominating. Bilbao are renowned for their pressing under Bielsa, but they were up against the masters, and it showed. Bilbao couldn’t get out of their own half, Barcelona were showboating: tricks and flicks in abundance, and unsurprisingly, they were guilty of over-elaboration at times.
The next chance came on the 25th minute, with an increasingly frustrated Bilbao defense resorting to a less refined approach as they looked to stop the constant attacks, with a niggling foul only serving to annoy Lionel Messi. Bad move. The free-kick was a good 25-30 yards out, but Messi didn’t care. Bilbao were trying to sort out their wall; Messi wasn’t bothered. Instead, he channelled his frustration into a well-taken quick free-kick that forced a world-class reaction save out of Iraizoz. The resulting corner kick also led to a chance, with Messi delivering a superb cross deep to Gerard Pique at the far post, who slid to meet the ball only for Jon Aurtnetxe to head the ball off the line. Barcelona were getting closer, but the score remained 0-0.
Andres Iniesta was next to test Iraizoz with an effort from outside the area after receiving a pass from Sergio Busquets, but Bilbao were defending well. Ekiza epitomised the Bilbao performance just minutes later with a stunning slide-tackle in the area on an advancing Messi, but they could not keep Barcelona out forever.
40 minutes on the clock and Barcelona went into overdrive. Alexis Sanchez was vital, displaying superb work-rate to win the ball back high up the field, and from there he handed the ball off to Lionel Messi. As per usual, Messi knew exactly what the correct decision was for that situation, feeding Andres Iniesta who surged into the right-side of the box and let rip with an unstoppable strike past Iraizoz at the near post. All that frustration, all that anger was released in one shot, and Barcelona had bulldozed through a resolute Athletic defense to take the lead.
Marcelo Bielsa made a couple of changes at the break, bringing on Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain as the Basques looked to play their way back into the game. However, unfortunately for them, Barcelona were not about to let up. Lionel Messi had a chip ruled out (correctly) for offside and was involved minutes later, receiving a ball over the top before trying to cut inside, running into a cul-de-sac and cutting the ball back for Tello, who opened up his body in an attempt to curl the ball into the bottom corner, only for Iraizoz to make another important save.
Tello may have been quiet up until that point, but it was his cue to burst into life as he won the Blaugrana a penalty. Sure, he was looking for it, but Javi Martinez was foolish enough to oblige Tello’s wish with a push in the back. Tello went over, and the referee pointed to the spot. Up stepped Lionel Messi for his 36th league goal of the season, and he calmly placed the ball in the bottom corner. 2-0, and there was no way back now for Bilbao.
Bielsa responded by throwing Fernando Llorente into the fray for Gaizka Toquero, and Guardiola also made his first change, bringing on Pedro for Cristian Tello.
Thiago and Andres Iniesta were bossing the midfield, and combined well just after the hour mark, but Thiago was closed out in front of goal with Iniesta left to rue his choice to pass rather than shoot. However, Iniesta wouldn’t make the same mistake shortly after, letting fly from outside the area after great build-up. His shot looked set to fly miles wide, but struck Messi on the back, looped goalwards and forced Iraizoz to make a good save. Seems that even Messi’s back has an eye for goal!
The resulting corner was delivered by Messi, and headed towards goal by Pique, but really the centre-back should have done a lot better with his effort. Xavi replaced Iniesta as Guardiola looked to see off the remaining 15 minutes with as much possession as possible, but Xavi’s introduction actually sparked Athletic into life. A fine counter-attack resulted in Iker Muniain being played through on goal, and Valdes was perhaps a little quick to rush out, allowing Muniain to slot it past him, with Pique quick (and tall) enough to slide the ball clear off the line.
Seydou Keita replaced Alexis Sanchez, and nearly got on the scoresheet in injury-time, but his effort was too powerful and struck the bar instead. All in all, aside from a couple of minutes here and there, this was a dominant Barcelona performance against one of Spanish football’s best sides. Without Carles Puyol, Xavi or David Villa. Guardiola may have claimed Bielsa is the best coach in the world, but his side made Bilbao look distinctly average for the most part.
Man of the match for me is Thiago, who was everywhere in this win. He passed the ball well, tracked back effectively, pressed incredibly well and quite simply dominated the midfield in his own unique way. He may not have made over 100 passes (although I could be wrong), but he was superb nonetheless. If the tempo was the over-riding factor, then Barcelona have a brilliant Plan B heading into the future, and if not, then they have an even better player than I first thought. Kudos to Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique as well. Also Adriano deserves a mention for his surging runs after returning from injury. Really, the entire team was near faultless. Onto Milan!
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