FC Barcelona is now one point behind Real Madrid in the La Liga points table, as El Blaugrana defeated Athletic Club Bilbao 5-2 at the new San Mamés on Sunday night.
Lionel Messi made it 1-0 in the 15th minute thanks to a free kick. Leo's kick hit a Bilbao defender who was part of the Bilbao wall, which caused the ball to just get past Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz for the goal.
A few minutes after Messi's goal, Iraizoz made a tremendous save on a Luis Suarez header. But Luisito bounced back and got his goal in the 26th minute, as Messi set up Suarez for the shot and goal.
In the second half, Mikel Rico made it 1-2 to cut the Barcelona lead. Messi answered in the 62nd minute with a goal that was technically an own goal, but Leo did all the work to make it 3-1.
Just two minutes later, Neymar made it 4-1 with a low shot to the far post.
Aduriz made it 2-4 just three minutes later to once again make it a two-goal lead for Barça. With only a few minutes to go in the match, Pedro made it 5-2. But it was the brilliant play by Leo Messi to set up Sergio Busquets to later feed Pedro that was the highlight of the match.
Final: Athletic Club 2-5 FC Barcelona
Sunday's win vs. Athletic Club Bilbao was arguably Barcelona's most impressive win of the season. While the wins vs. Atletico Madrid were solid, this Barça win might be more impressive because it's Barcelona coming into a tough environment in San Mamés, with the pressure of knowing you could be one point behind Real Madrid with a win, playing a physically-imposing opponent in Bilbao, and playing a complete team win. Sure, there were some good opportunities that were missed by Barça, but to overcome those and put up five goals at San Mamés is not something that happens every day. Plus, missed chances happen to the best teams, and it's not about the missed chances, it's about how you respond to those missed chances that matter.
Since the 0-1 loss to Real Sociedad and the week that saw Andoni Zubizarreta fired, early elections called, and a crisis that had people wondering when Luis Enrique was getting fired and when was Messi leaving, this Futbol Club Barcelona team has completely changed. Sure, it's not the 2009 Pep Guardiola Barça (nor will there ever be a team close to that), but it's obvious that this is not a small run of good games. Barcelona has finally turned it around.
Like any other team, Barcelona still has its issues. But we cannot deny that this team has found its rhythm. Leading the way is Lionel Messi. Against Bilbao, Leo had one goal, two assists, one shot that led to an own goal and one "hockey assist"/secondary assist which led Busquets to Pedro for a goal. Messi now has 33 goals this Liga season. Messi's assists are surgeon-like in detail and precision, as usual. Leo has nine goals and five assists in La Liga for 2015. It's only February, but if Leo continues to tear up La Liga and break more records, a fifth Ballon d'Or is on its way for Messi.
Gerard Pique's resurrection is a bit remarkable. The past two seasons saw Mr. Shakira's game drop. Many were wondering if Barcelona should sell him, as it seemed Gerard wasn't going to be back in the form that helped him win titles from 2008-2012. But this season, Gerard has either regained his form or he simply worked harder than he's ever worked to get back to all-world status. I have been a harsh critic of Pique these past few seasons, but I must say that I can't criticize Gerard this season. I'm glad to see Pique be "Piquenbauer" this season.
While Luis Suarez isn't the "Liverpool Suarez" just yet at FC Barcelona, let's not act like he won't get there. Who knows? With Messi and Neymar running alongside Luisito, we may see a better Suarez at Barcelona than we saw at Liverpool. We may not see as many goals, but he can rack up assists and still get plenty of goals. Messi and Neymar are more than happy to feed Luis goals. Suarez's assists are there, and the goals will come. Neymar grabbed another goal against Bilbao, and continues to be a pillar for the offense.
Claudio Bravo is no Manuel Neuer nor does he not possess some of the skills Marc-Andre ter Stegen has, but Bravo continues to get the job done and we cannot ask for more than that.
Dani Alves is still a weak spot on the team. Jeremy Mathieu struggles too many times, and the midfield has been inconsistent most of the season. But against Bilbao, the mids were on their game. Sergio Busquets had a very good game against Bilbao along with Xavi and Ivan Rakitic. Is the inconsistency of the midfield of this season out and consistent good play here? I believe so. Andres Iniesta rested against Bilbao, and will be ready to go against Villarreal in the Copa del Rey semifinal this week. Rafinha is a rising young star. Let's not forget that Javier Mascherano is still a CDM and can play any game to boost the midfield.
It's not that this Barcelona team "doesn't have a midfield," it's just that there have been games where they were inconsistent earlier this season. Now, we are seeing a midfield that is consistent, sharp, and is supporting and supplying help to the forwards.
After the Bilbao match, Luis Enrique said nothing has changed over this last month, meaning they have not changed and are the same team they've been since the beginning of the season. That's nice to say Lucho, but yes, something has changed. After the crisis, it would have been understandable and somewhat expected to see this Barça team fold up and collapse in 2014-15.
But the heart of a champion never folds up and quits—even in dire circumstances.
The players have come together and are in the best form of the season. And Luis Enrique? Well, I still don't believe he is the savior of this team nor will he last if/when a new club president arrives, but I must say Lucho has kept the lineup stable since the club meltdown and that has helped build this turnaround.
What's Next?: Vs. Villarreal in Copa semis
Barcelona returns to the Camp Nou on Wednesday to take on Villarreal CF in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals. Last week, Barcelona got a 3-2 win against the Yellow Submarine in a back-and-forth Liga match. Look for a very similar lineup from Lucho to go. Javier Mascherano rested against Bilbao and could get the start at CB. As previously mentioned, Iniesta rested and is expected to start against Villarreal. Other than Mascherano, Iniesta and ter Stegen in the starting XI, don't expect any other changes in the lineup. Lucho should keep doing what's working and not tweak the lineup much.
Xoel's Final Word
It was a must-win at San Mamés against Athletic Club Bilbao, and FC Barcelona not only got the 5-2 win, but also made a statement with the win. It was Barcelona's first win in Basque Country since 2010.
With Barcelona's win along with Real Madrid's 0-4 beat down at the hands of Atletico de Madrid, Barça is now one point back of L0s Bl4ncos in the Liga table.
La Liga is always a marathon, and FC Barcelona has charged back in the race.