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La Liga: Athletic Bilbao 1-0 FC Barcelona: Match Review

A recap of Barcelona's 0-1 defeat against Athletic Bilbao at the "new" San Mames, as Iker Muniain's second-half goal inflicted the first La Liga defeat of Gerardo Martino's reign

David Ramos

A second-half strike from Iker Muniain was enough to seal a memorable 1-0 victory for Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, as the Basque side registered an unlikely win over long-time rivals FC Barcelona in the first clash between the two sides at Los Leones new home, the "Nuevo" San Mames.

Athletic Bilbao





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Gerardo Martino made three changes to the side that slumped to a 2-1 defeat against AFC Ajax on Tuesday, replacing Alex Song, Carles Puyol and Pedro with Sergio Busquets, Adriano Correia and Alexis Sánchez respectively, hoping that this triumvirate of changes would inspire the Blaugrana to become the first team to escape the "new" San Mames with a victory. Would Barcelona be able to bounce back from their UEFA Champions League disappointment, or would Gerardo Martino’s team drop points for just the second time this La Liga campaign?

Based on the early exchanges, the two teams appeared relatively evenly-matched, as the hosts compensated for their vastly inferior budget and somewhat restrictive recruitment policy with a tenacious workrate, pressing their illustrious visitors high up the field. On paper, it was an intelligent approach from Ernesto Valverde – how else could Athletic Bilbao capitalise on what was likely to be an anxious start from Barcelona?

Fortunately for Gerardo Martino, Barcelona weathered the early pressure and soon settled into their stride, chipping away at the Athletic Bilbao defense – and soon finding gaps to exploit. Neymar in particular was looking bright, finding space in amidst the centre-half and full-back on the left-flank, forcing an exceptional diving save from Gorka Iraizoz in the 12th minute. While the corner ultimately didn’t result in anything significant, it was an encouraging sign for the Blaugrana.

And it wasn’t long before Neymar carved out another chance, finding space behind the backline with a fantastic run which was well picked out by Andrés Iniesta, the Brazilian rattled the frame of the goal – although any goal would have been ruled out by the assistant referee’s decision to flag for offside.

Andrés Iniesta was the next to test Iraizoz with a hopeful lob/cross from a tight angle, before Athletic Bilbao mustered their first shot on target – with arguably the best chance of the game, as Iker Muniain toe-poked a weak effort at the legs of Jose Manuel Pinto from close range. It was a let-off for Barça, who were evidently still struggling to find their feet – often literally.

Was the loose turf at the "new" San Mames causing difficulties for Barcelona star-studded squad? Neymar was certainly finding it tough to adjust, resorting to a change of footwear on the half-hour mark, hoping a change of boots would change his fortunes in front of goal. If the change made any impact, it was tough to see in the action – Barcelona went the remainder of the half without attempting a shot, while Gazika Toquero missed a gilt-edged change for the hosts, heading a good chance well wide of Pinto’s far post.

As a result, the two sides entered the break tied at 0-0, with the match evenly poised headed into the second period.

One couldn’t help but get the feeling that this was the kind of match that could be decided by a single decision, or by a moment of individual magic – but without Lionel Messi on the field, there were few individuals capable of such brilliance. The main candidate, Neymar, was continuing to struggle; since forcing that early save, the Brazilian had struggled to hit the target and that trend continued in the second half.

Neymar somehow scooped Barça’s best chance of the early stages over the bar – although let’s look at this from another perspective, if Neymar was playing poorly for missing those chances, what can we say about Alexis Sánchez and Cesc Fàbregas, neither of whom who had so much of a sniff of goal throughout the opening hour?

Athletic were lucky to retain their full complement of players when Ander Iturraspe cynically brought down Neymar on the edge of the area and only received a yellow card for denying the former Santos striker a clear goalscoring opportunity – the same punishment afforded to Sergio Busquets for presumably emphasising the latter point to the referee. When the resulting free-kick sailed a few feet wide of the post, there was an overwhelming feeling that maybe this wasn’t Barcelona’s night?

And if it wasn’t going to be Barcelona’s night, then why wouldn’t it be Athletic Bilbao’s night? Welcoming an old foe to their new stomping ground, they were hoping to make this night a memorable one – and who better to step to the foreground than San Mames’ latest poster boy, Iker Muniain, who surged unmarked into the Barcelona six-yard box to slide the Basques into the lead following an excellent low cross from Markel Susaeta.

Within minutes, Gazika Toquero could have doubled their lead if not for the heroics of Jose Manuel Pinto who kept his powerful header at bay with a superb save at point-blank range. Barcelona were on the ropes, backed into a corner and Athletic were going for the knockout punch. Gerardo Martino needed to react – and he did, throwing Sergi Roberto and Pedro into the action, giving each player roughly ten minutes to try and turn this game around. It was a difficult task that proved to be impossible – and just like, Barcelona’s unbeaten start to this La Liga campaign was ended. Barça’s three-point lead has vanished in just over 24 hours and suddenly, there is some pressure at the Camp Nou.

Next up, Barcelona face Cartagena in the Copa del Rey on Friday, but until then, Visca el Barça!

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