FC Barcelona managed to fight their way to a point against a resolute Athletic Bilbao side in the match of Jornada 11. Bilbao took the lead early through Ander Herrera, before Cesc Fabregas equalised minutes later. Weather conditions were poor in the Basque country, and the pitch at San Mames played it's part. Bilbao again went ahead through an own goal from Gerard Pique, but Lionel Messi popped up with an equaliser in stoppage time to salvage a point.
On the day that heralded the beginning of the midday kick-off in La Liga, FC Barcelona travelled to San Mames and Athletic Bilbao. Upon arrival, they found themselves in a contest in every sense of the word. The tactical battle between Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa would not disappoint, the physicality that has become a Bilbao trademark was in evidence and the weather conditions meant posed yet another problem.
Unlike Real Madrid’s match with Osasuna, that was meant to earn La Liga money from Asian markets, this was one hell of a game. Bilbao started well, though Barcelona created the first chance. Adriano started again on the left-wing and he cut inside to great effect, exchanging a one-two with Xavi Hernandez, and forcing a save out of Gorka Iraizoz. Despite a mistake from the Basque keeper, the scores remained level.
Each side was leaving spaces in defense, and the game was high tempo, despite Barcelona’s attempts to monopolise possession. Fernando Llorente was proving a real handful for Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, holding the ball up for Susaeta to lay off for Ander whose shot went straight at Victor Valdes.
Just five minutes later, it was the same situation, but this time Mascherano’s slip set up the attack. Susaeta laid the ball off for Ander Herrera, and this time the summer signing from Real Zaragoza made no mistake. Finishing the cutback with aplomb, Valdes’ clean sheet record had been ended in superb fashion, and it seemed as though Bielsa was about to punch above his weight yet again.
In truth, Barcelona had not created anything of note mainly thanks to Bielsa’s superb tactics, though when they did, it ended up in the back of the net. Eric Abidal surged down the left flank before looping a cross to the back post, and Cesc Fabregas rose highest to power home a header into the top corner. Fernando Amorebieta should have done better defensively, and within just five minutes, FC Barcelona were level.
Mere minutes had passed since the goal, and Lionel Messi tried to engineer a chance embarking on a trademark run before firing a shot wide. Then the Argentine dinked a cute through ball to Andres Iniesta, but the Spaniard fired straight at Iraizoz and Messi slipped trying to get to the rebound. Were the conditions affecting the match? You bet they were, but it was creating a fine spectacle.
Iker Muniain was the next to fall victim to the torrential rain as he slipped while taking a shot. As a result, the shot trickled tamely to Victor Valdes and a chance was gone. Chances aplenty in an open game! I dread to think the last time Barcelona were faced with such an all-round contest, and kudos to Bielsa for that.
The second half started despite the continuing rainfall, and smartly/unfairly the Bilbao groundsmen "forgot" to tend to the Bilbao half. That meant that Barcelona would find it difficult to retain possession and create chances of any sort. There were no changes at the half-time break, and the match continued in the same vein, with an emphasis on the tactical battle being played out on the touchline.
Bielsa was making it difficult for Lionel Messi to impose himself on the match, though Guardiola did not help by positioning him out on the right-hand side. In lieu of this the Blaugrana were having to rely upon the midfield creativity of Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, but the conditions were making their jobs a living hell.
The first chance of the second half was a fortuitous one, falling to Iniesta after Javi Martinez got into all sorts of trouble with a puddle. First he tried to dribble through it, and the ball got stuck, then he tried to play it back to Iraizoz and it got clogged up in the pitch. 30 yards out Iniesta sensed Iraizoz was off his line and tried a lob, but the keeper had no problem.
Next up to have a chance was Lionel Messi, after Cesc Fabregas played a nice ball to the left of the Bilbao defense, but the angle was too tight for Messi to properly test Iraizoz. With that, Guardiola had seen enough, and sent on Alexis Sanchez for Xavi. Clearly he was hoping the Chilean would have a similar impact to last week, but he could not get any momentum going, and was largely ineffective.
David Villa replaced Adriano on 71 minutes, and Barcelona were pressing Bilbao high up the pitch, in search of that breakthrough. That however, would be their demise. Pressing high up the pitch, Barcelona were left a little thin at the back after a Bilbao clearance, and Javier Mascherano was left alone being pressed by the Bilbao attack. On the left-hand side, he chose to play it back to Victor Valdes, but failed, and the ball rolled out for a corner kick.
The corner was sent in towards the six-yard box, and hit Eric Abidal on the shin, although it could have been Fernando Llorente with the touch. Either way, it bounced towards goal, and Pique could not react quick enough so the ball hit the Spaniard and ricocheted into the net past Victor Valdes. Athletic Bilbao were ahead, albeit against the run of play.
That would be Gerard Pique’s last act as Guardiola sent on Thiago to try and salvage something from the encounter. David Villa was the first to waste a chance, firing straight at Iraizoz on a couple of occasions, before Sanchez’s cross was met by Andres Iniesta, but even he could not hit the target. All appeared lost, until added on time...
Fernando Amorebieta had just received a red card for his second bookable offense, and Barcelona were on the attack trying to thread a ball through the Bilbao defense. It appeared to have been wasted, but Iturraspe slide the ball clear instead of leaving it for Iraizoz and the ball broke for Lionel Messi. This was a man who had failed to score away from home in La Liga, and in his career at San Mames, but he could not miss. Barcelona got an equaliser; Messi got his goal, Madrid were now only three points ahead.
Frantic attempts to find a winner followed, but the referee did not allow too much more time, so it ended 2-2, a fair reflection on a brilliant match.
Man of the match goes to Lionel Messi, just for saving our ass. Next up is Hospitalet on Wednesday in the return of the Copa del Rey. Until then, Visca el Barca!