Barcelona overturned a first-leg deficit in impressive fashion on Wednesday evening, comfortably defeating Athletic Bilbao 3-1 at the Camp Nou to book their place in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey. Inspired by the return to form of the “MSN” triumvirate who each bagged a goal, Barcelona will be confident of their chances of progressing further and perhaps challenging for the trophy.
The trend continued, at least in the initial stages of the match. The Blaugrana were dominating possession and in general, they were winning the territorial battle too, but they were having trouble finding that final pass in the offensive third. The visitors had arrived with a lead, and had no qualms about committing numbers back to do so – as well as engaging in a fair amount of time-wasting.
As a result, Barcelona were struggling to find any rhythm, and just when it appeared as though they had burst into life, another controversial decision halted them in their tracks. Neymar had been flagged for offside after a defense splitting pass from Andres Iniesta, so the subsequent tap-in from Luis Suarez never made it onto the scoreboard. Predictably, replays showed that Neymar was well onside at the time the pass was made.
The trio would not let that discourage them. Iniesta won possession and fed Neymar, who was in dazzling form on the left, and he continued his strong showing with a cross to the back-post where Luis Suarez was waiting to caress a volley into the far corner of the net.
As things stood after the first half, Barcelona were on their way into the quarter-finals on the away goal rule, but a goal for Athletic Bilbao would have changed all that. There was still work to do, and Neymar got straight to the task at hand; a typically impressive dribble into the area caught Athletic off-guard and a clumsy challenge brought the Brazilian to the ground. The referee pointed to the spot, and Neymar made no mistake with a cool finish to double the Blaugrana’s advantage.
Game-over, right? Wrong. It may have been their first real attack of the night, but Athletic Bilbao struck back within minutes; Boveda surged clear on the overlap and his cross was ably headed into the back of the net by Saborit. All of a sudden, a match that seemed decided was back in the balance and destined for extra-time.
Step forward, Lionel Messi.
All throughout the match, Athletic had been playing with fire, giving away free kicks like candy on Halloween. As if the weekend hadn’t been warning enough, Messi eventually made them pay, firing in a trademark curler that bounced in off the post. This time, Barcelona would hold on to their lead and with it, book their place in the quarters.
Barcelona: Cillessen; Roberto, Piqué, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Rafinha (Rakitic), Iniesta (Turan); Messi, Suárez, Neymar (Denis)
Goals: Suarez (35'), Neymar (48’), Messi (77’)
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; Boveda, Laporte, Etxeita (Elustondo), Balenziaga; Benat, San Jose; Saborit (Susaeta), Eraso, Williams; Sabin (Aduriz)
Goal: Saborit (51’)