La Liga: Athletic Bilbao 2-2 FC Barcelona: Match Review

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

A recap of Barcelona's 2-2 draw with Athletic Bilbao as Ander Herrera's last-minute equaliser secured a share of the points for Marcelo Bielsa's side in the last match between the two sides at San Mames

Athletic Bilbao left it late to secure a share of the spoils tonight as they held La Liga champions-elect FC Barcelona to a 2-2 in the final match between the two sides at San Mames. Athletic took the lead on 27 minutes through Markel Susaeta’s tap-in, and remained ahead until the 67th minute, when Barcelona substitute Lionel Messi waltzed through the Basque defense to drag the Blaugrana back into the match. Messi then turned creator, supplying an assist for Alexis Sánchez’ 69th minute half-volley, but Athletic and Marcelo Bielsa would have the last laugh, striking in the 90th minute through Ander Herrera.

Athletic Bilbao

Barcelona

Possession

42%

58%

Total Shots

7

15

Shots on Target

3

6

Pass Accuracy

68%

82%

Fouls

17

11

Offsides

4

3

Yellow Cards

3

2

Red Cards

0

0

Tito Vilanova hinted on Friday that Barcelona’s UEFA Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich was not yet over, despite the Blaugrana’s heavy 4-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena, but his team selection for tonight’s match against Athletic Bilbao suggested otherwise. Rather than resting the likes of Xavi Hernández, Gerard Piqué, Dani Alves and Pedro Rodriguez, Tito selected a strong XI – with Lionel Messi the notable absentee. The Argentine superstar did make the bench, but was clearly not ready to start his second match in under a week following his "recovery" from a hamstring injury. Would Barcelona be able to finish their week on a high with a victory against Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao, or would the Basque side get revenge for last season’s Copa del Rey final defeat?

If the early stages of the match were anything to go by, maybe Bielsa’s side would be able to get the win they so desperately wanted – in the opening quarter-of-an-hour, Barcelona were struggling to keep possession, and more importantly, keep Athletic at bay. Ander Herrera could have inadvertently opened the scoring around the eight minute mark, coming within a few feet of the far corner of the net with his teasing cross that also evaded the out-stretched leg of Artiz Aduriz, who was starting ahead of Fernando Llorente in attack, as he has done for the majority of this season.

In some respects, it was almost as though Barcelona were suffering from the after-effects of that heavy 4-0 defeat against Bayern Munich. Short on confidence, and a little weary of committing players forward, Barça needed to improve – and thankfully that chance for Aduriz prompted the Blaugrana to spring into life. Gerard Piqué was guilty of wasting a decent chance as Barcelona threatened from a corner (!) but Barça’s first real chance of the evening fell to Alexis Sánchez, after a nice pass from Cesc Fàbregas. The under-fire duo have impressed in the past few weeks, demonstrating superb chemistry to create a number of goals against the likes of Mallorca and more recently, Real Zaragoza – and they combined to great effect once again, although this time Alexis Sánchez struck the post rather than the back of the net. Still, this was promising play from the Blaugrana. Would they be able to capitalise on this spell of pressure?

Unfortunately not.

Instead it was Athletic Bilbao who would open the scoring as Markel Susaeta converted from close-range following an exceptional assist from Aritz Aduriz. Not only did the Bilbao number 20 display an excellent turn of pace to escape the challenge of Gerard Piqué but he also provided Susaeta with a perfectly-weighted low cross; whether he was marginally offside or not, Susaeta couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this – firing the hosts into a surprise lead at San Mames.

To their credit, Barcelona didn’t let that goal faze them; sure, they were a goal behind against Athletic away from home, but this wasn’t an entirely unexpected set-back, and Barça knew how to respond. Cesc Fàbregas came the closest, nearly finding the back of the net from an absurd angle just on the stroke of half-time. However, despite his best efforts, Barça were still trailing at the interval.

Tito Vilanova made a change at the break, replacing Eric Abidal with Adriano Correia, possibly with one eye on Wednesday’s clash with Bayern Munich. Or maybe Tito felt as though Abidal needed to be taken off – it hadn’t been his best half of football after all. Whatever the case, Adriano slotted into the heart of defense alongside Gerard Piqué as Barcelona pressed forward in search of an equaliser. Despite trailing at San Mames, Barça actually took a quarter-of-an-hour to register their first shot of the second-half, which was created by their latest substitute, Lionel Messi. Obviously, Messi struggled to make an impact against Bayern, but the Argentine was showing little sign of an injury tonight, immediately changing the match. If Pedro would have been a little more compose in front of goal, Messi could have easily got an assist within just two minutes of entering the field of play – not that it really mattered, Bilbao couldn’t keep Messi at bay for long.

It’s been a long time since we last saw Messi in a La Liga match, so it’s easy to forget about his staggering scoring record – which he duly extended tonight, in quite sensational fashion. Thanks to the midweek defeat, and in part, to the start of this match, many have raised legitimate concerns about whether Barcelona can succeed without Lionel Messi in attack – although does it really matter when Barça do have Messi, and he is capable of scoring goals like this? Taking on one defender isn’t quite enough for a player of his calibre, instead, Messi took on the entire Bilbao defense, and left them all in his wake with mesmeric close control and jaw-dropping acceleration. And as if the dribbling wasn’t enough, Messi followed it up with a world-class finish, caressing the ball into the corner of the net from the edge of Iraizoz’ area. A brilliant goal from a brilliant player. Could Barcelona now go on and secure the three points?

With Messi on the field, anything was possible – including a second goal within just three minutes.

Unsurprisingly, Lionel Messi was the creator – albeit in a rather bizarre fashion. Was he going for goal? Did he really mean to pick out Alexis Sánchez? Did it really matter? All that mattered was that Messi headed Dani Alves’ cross to the Chilean, and that after an excellent first-touch, Alexis was able to finish from close-range. It had taken Lionel Messi just 10 minutes to turn this game on its head; maybe the title could be won tonight after all?

Certainly, with a goal advantage, it seemed as though Barcelona would be holding up their side of the bargain – even if Atletico were yet to kick-off against Real Madrid – but if we’ve learnt anything over the years, it’s that you cannot rest on your laurels at San Mames. Athletic Bilbao fight tooth and nail until the final whistle and tonight would not be an exception.

With 90 minutes on the clock, Bilbao delivered a crushing blow to Barça’s title hopes with a late equaliser, courtesy of Ander Herrera. Sure, Barcelona can and will still win the title, but this goal meant that they would have to wait until next week – or possibly even longer than that – to secure the title. Once again, the chance came as Barcelona failed to clear their lines following a cross into the area, and again, the opposition took full advantage of that "mistake" to score a valuable goal. Hardly the morale-boosting end that Barcelona were hoping for as they approach their UEFA Champions League semi-final second-leg against Bayern Munich...but until then, Visca el Barça!


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