Barcelona overcame the first leg 2-1 deficit “earned” in the Basque Country, advancing to the next round of the Spanish Cup by a 4-3 aggregate win over Athletic Bilbao. Luis Suarez opened the scoring for Barcelona in the first half, before Neymar’s and Lionel Messi’s strikes sandwiched Enric Saborit’s effort in the second half.
With Ivan Rakitić in the doghouse, it didn’t come as a surprise the Croatian was once again left out of the starting lineup, this time he was benched by Rafinha. Jasper Cillessen returned from injury to take his starting Copa del Rey spot. The rest of the Barcelona lineup was as expected. Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde had to select a team that was missing two starters that picked up red cards in the first leg. Their replacements weren’t at all surprising, but the surprise came in attack where Valverde benched Aritz Aduriz.
Similarly to the first leg, the visitors came out of the game pushing high up the pitch, but their press wasn’t quite as aggressive as it was at San Mames. Barcelona looked to quickly make Athletic pay for allowing their deep lying playmakers to create chances from long direct passes. Suarez always seemed to be the intended target, but despite his best efforts the Uruguayan couldn’t get possession in a position to take a dangerous shot. Jordi Alba was also very active on the left wing, but his passes to the middle weren’t on point.
Slowly but surely Barcelona were making life difficult for the Athletic back-line. The visitors seemed to have put a lot of focus on defending Lionel Messi, leaving more space for Barcelona on the left side of the attack, but Alba’s passing in the final third was poor. Neymar was again very successful against the Basque side and it appeared his unselfish pass in the 25th minute to Suarez resulted in Barcelona’s first goal of the game. However… Despite being well onside, Neymar was adjudged to be offside, ruling out Barcelona’s goal. After the last two games, that should not have come as a surprise…
Shortly after, the visitors were forced to make their first substitution as Xabier Etxeita picked up an injury and was replaced by Gorka Elustondo. Barcelona continued to attack and the historic attacking trio looked destined to break the deadlock before the break. And indeed the three combined to but Barcelona in the lead both in the game and on aggregate. Messi showcased his incredible close-quarter dribbling abilities, which included a “one-two” with Eneko Bóveda, before a lovely through ball to Neymar. The Brazilian beautifully found Suarez wide open on the far post and the Uruguayan, after missing some sitters in recent matches, powered the difficult first-time shot into the back of the net.
Barcelona continued to dominate play in the remaining ten minutes of the first half, but more than an off-target Messi free kick from a very good spot the Catalans couldn’t muster. Athletic couldn’t regain their composure after conceding and rarely carried the ball over the half-line. The lack of an all-around threat like Aduriz up front severely limited Athletic’s options on the pitch and Barcelona were able to play with a higher defensive line, which meant they had a shorter field to conquer for the majority of the first half.
That the lack of Aduriz on the pitch hurt Athletic wasn’t only noticed by couch-coaches around the world, but was seen by the visiting manager as well. Aduriz joined the Athletic XI immediately after the break. But before the noted Barcelona-killer could have any effect on the game, Neymar brought some magic to the Camp Nou. The Brazilian went on a brilliant run down the left wing, skipping past Elustondo with ease, before being brought down by Bóveda inside the penalty area for a spot-kick. Marred in a scoring drought over 1000 minutes long, Neymar took responsibility for the kick. After a couple of stutters, stops and a few more stutters, Neymar found the back of the net to double Barcelona’s lead.
But Barcelona’s advantage didn’t last long. A broken play on the left side of the Barcelona defense led to a perfect cross to the far post where Sergi Roberto left Saborit wide open for the accurate header across goal to draw the visitors level on aggregate. The goal brought new life into Athletic’s ranks and Barcelona suddenly struggled to play the ball from the back, with numerous deep turnovers gifting the visitors good looks on goal, but Barcelona managed to regroup before Athletic could score for a second time.
Barcelona survived Athletic’s mini-pressure and returned on the offensive. The Catalans looked destined to regain the two-goal lead in the 58th minute after Messi sent a good ball to the middle to the waiting Suarez, but a diving Bóveda prevented celebrations at the Camp Nou. Shortly after, in quick succession, Alba and Neymar fired right-footed shots on target, but both of them aimed right at the goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz. In the 68th minute, Suarez attempted to put Barcelona in front on aggregate. Unlike his two teammates moments earlier, the Uruguayan didn’t aim right at the goalkeeper, but went for the far post, but his shot whistled wide.
Athletic remained active after failing to score a second one after pinning Barcelona back for minutes after scoring. But the Barcelona defense managed to hold the visitors, for the most part at least, to the perimeter and Athletic struggled to find a good look on the Barcelona goal. On the other side though, Barcelona consistently looked dangerous. And in the 78th minute, Suarez won another free kick in a very good spot. With Messi quite badly missing his two attempts, Neymar could’ve been given the green light to take the kick. But Messi would have another go. Iraizoz expected the ball to go over the wall, like it did the previous two times, but no. This time Messi went into the goalkeeper’s corner, bouncing the ball off the post and into the back of the net. Barcelona were now again in the lead on aggregate, but could not afford to give up another one.
Valverde reacted quickly, bringing on Markel Susaeta in place of Athletic’s goal-scorer, Saborit. Luis Enrique countered by taking Rafinha off the pitch and replacing him with Rakitić. Shortly thereafter, Neymar dazzled in the penalty area once again, dribbling past three Athletic defenders before firing off a shot that was redirected just wide of target by a block.
Lucho made two more subs in quick succession in the dying stages of the game. First, Denis Suarez was brought on in place of Neymar, then, Arda Turan took the place of Andres Iniesta. With three minutes added on, Barcelona played keep-away with Athletic, holding the ball until the final whistle, even creating a golden opportunity in the 92nd minute, but Denis misfired badly after being unselfishly set-up by Luis.
The final whistle blew and Barcelona recorded their first win on 2017. The Catalans are through to the quarter finals for the 7th year in a row. But before the Copa del Rey continues, Barcelona will look to return to winning ways in La Liga where they will face Las Palmas on Saturday.