In the first leg of the Copa del Rey Quarter Final between last season’s Cup finalists, Barcelona manager to secure an important advantage, boosted by the fact the two Barcelona goals were scored at San Mames. But the Catalans will have to take care of business at home as the winner of this time is anything but a forgone conclusion after Aritz Aduriz halved Barcelona’s lead, a lead earned by strikes from Munir El Haddadi and Neymar.
|Shots on Target||4
Just three days after Barcelona hammered Athletic by a score of 6-0 the two teams met again, but nobody was expecting a similar result as there were several differences in the two sides. The first one was that Athletic didn't have to play with 10 men just about the entire game as they did at the Camp Nou and Barcelona were without two members of the record-breaking MSN trio with Luis Suarez out with a suspension and Lionel Messi missing the game as a precaution after receiving a knock three days ago.
What was expected form this game was that the hosts would pressure the Catalans all across the pitch and that is exactly how the Basques played. Barcelona often struggled to get out of their own half as the hosts were harassing Barcelona players relentlessly. It is a tactic the Basques have often used, especially at San Mames, to mixed results, but it was clear that in this one Barcelona had many problems in defense and in transition. Athletic though looked very confident on the pitch and launched several good looking attacks, but Barcelona held its ground.
After surviving the early attacks, Barcelona started to get some attacks of their own going. Their first chance came in the 15th minute when after a corner kick Neymar's deflected shot almost surprised Iago Herrerín. Dani Alves would take a long-range shot from the ensuing corner, but the ball whistled wide of Herrerín's right post.
In the 18th minute, however, Barcelona would take the lead. The Catalans attacked down the right side and the key play came when Arda Turan, who attracted three players, got the ball forward to the rushing Ivan Rakitić. The Croatian wasted no time in sending a perfect cross to Munir in the middle who made no mistake in redirecting the ball into the back of net.
So Athletic's great start to the game was spoiled when three defenders communicated poorly and all covered Arda. And another defensive mistake would cost the hosts seven minutes later. Sergi Roberto chipped the ball in from the left side seemingly right into the path of Xabier Etxeita, but the central defender let the ball past him into the waiting feet of Neymar. Herrerín left his line to clear the ball away but missed it, leaving Neymar alone with the ball in front of an empty net for an easy goal.
But Athletic would not go quietly into the night, as even though they were clearly demoralized by the two-goal Barcelona lead their pressing did not let up. But unlike in the early minutes of the half the Basques didn't really threaten Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal for the rest of the half, mostly due to some excellent defensive plays from his back-line where Gerard Pique's play was especially crucial due to numerous cleared high crosses.
The second half almost started with a piece of magic as, after stealing the ball in midfield, Sergio Busquets played Munir behind the defense. Probably hoping for a similar result as in the UEFA Youth League Final a few years back, Munir attempted an audacious chip shot from 35-yards out, but his try went right into the hands of Herrerín. Athletic countered that with a couple chances of their own, but on a couple of plays the defense reacted excellently while Javier Eraso's shot just missed the target.
In an effort to improve their attacking efficiency, coach Ernesto Valverde made two changes in quick succession around the one-hour mark. First he replaced Markel Susaeta with Iker Muniain and then brought on Sabin Merino in place of Eraso. Luis Enrique countered that by replacing the seemingly always effective Arda with another newcomer Aleix Vidal. In the 68th minute Valverde completed his final substitution, this time making a change in midfield, replacing Beñat Etxebarria with Mikel San José. Continuing the substitution theme, Lucho made his second in the 74th minute when Adriano Correia replaced the Swiss Army knife that is Roberto.
Barcelona seemingly looked content for the majority of the second half with the two-goal lead, never really looking to overextend themselves going forward, with the two full-backs often staying back to provide defensive solidity in case of a turnover. In defense the Catalans also looked about as positionally sound as they did at any point this season with the players doing an excellent job at covering for each other - apart from the last minutes of the game that is.
If transfer rumors are to be believed, when Sandro Ramirez replaced Munir in the 80th minute, it just might have marked Sandro's last game in Barcelona colors. If that is actually the case we'll have to wait and see, but just moments later Athletic had their best chance so far to beat ter Stegen. After a corner kick Sabin rose the highest and headed a great shot just inside the near post, but the young German in the Barcelona goal showed quick reflexes and got his hand up to prevent the goal. Ter Stegen was in action again just seconds later, from the ensuing corner, this time calmly collecting the ball.
But Athletic's "desperation mode" bore fruit in the end as noted Barcelona killer Aduriz beat ter Stegen after an inexplicable and costly Alves turnover deep in his own area. Aduriz would have a chance to tie the game from in close in the next minute after a very nice Sabin pass, but ter Stegen made another reflex save.
Barcelona will therefore only carry a one goal advantage going into the second leg next week, played at the Camp Nou, but scoring two goals away from home is a good result. Still, the late Aduriz goal will leave a bad taste.
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