Barcelona lost their first match of the year 2017 – their first ever loss under Luis Enrique in the Copa del Rey. They were bested courtesy of a three minute double by Aritz Aduriz and Inaki Williams. Barcelona improved after the break, but more than a solitary goal by Lionel Messi they could not put together, even though the hosts finished with only nine on the pitch.
Athletic Bilbao looked to catch Barcelona napping early after the holiday break, pressing forward from the opening kickoff. Ernesto Valverde’s plan showed promise as the hosts quickly pinned Barcelona deep and created their first scoring chance in the second minute, but Mikel San Jose couldn’t connect well enough with the corner kick. Athletic continued to push very high up the pitch, constantly putting the pressure on both Barcelona center-backs and the goalkeeper.
Barcelona were able to weather the early storm, but their playmaking abilities suffered mightily because of Athletic’s playing style, and Barcelona often only found any space to work on quick counter attacks. Barcelona’s first promising attack didn’t come until the 11th minute on one of those counters. Neymar carried the ball down the left side before squaring the ball to the middle to the onrushing Lionel Messi, but the pass was just out of his reach. Moments later, Messi had another chance, the assist again coming from the left side, but this time the Argentine missed the target.
Barcelona slowly started to gain a little momentum and the Catalans were in quick succession able to threaten on a couple more attacks, but the game remained scoreless. In the 20th minute, Barcelona came very close to opening the scoring. Messi received the ball on the right wing and quickly noticed a poorly covered Gerard Pique, who remained up the pitch because of an earlier corner kick. With pin-point accuracy the Argentine found his Spanish teammate, but Pique missed the target. After heading the ball wide of target, Pique was wiped out by a challenge by Iraizoz, but referee David Fernández Borbalán would not point to the spot.
While Barcelona might have been slowly picking up steam, it would be Athletic Bilbao who would score first. Aduriz picked up an errant pass and quickly started the counter with a pass forward to Raul Garcia. Unguarded, Aduriz continued his way to the far post where he received a high cross that he promptly buried past a helpless Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Three minutes later, the hosts would capitalize on another Barcelona turnover. Jordi Alba played a terrible ball forward that was intercepted and quickly played forward to Aduriz who excellently found Williams in the danger area. Williams wasted no time and powered the ball into the top corner, doubling Athletic’s lead.
Barcelona were shell-shocked from the quick-fire double and struggled to regroup. Barcelona didn’t necessarily play good football before conceding, but they attacked and looked dangerous at times, but after falling behind, the Catalans struggled even more.
Terrifying scenes ensued in the 36th minute when Samuel Umtiti was left lying on the ground, gasping for air. Several moments past and medical help arrived and the Frenchman was eventually helped up and was able to continue. Replays showed that Umtiti was struck by the flailing left fist of Aduriz, who continued to wreak havoc inside the Barcelona penalty area – one way or the other.
Barcelona mounted a mini pressure in the final moments of the first half, with Neymar playing a key role. First he had a rising shot well saved by Iraizoz, and the he was brought down in the area by Xabier Etxeita for a clear penalty. The only problem was that the referee didn’t agree, which resulted in numerous protests. The final tally after the clear penalty was as follows: no penalty and three yellow cards for Barcelona. The halftime whistle could not have come at a better time for the Catalans who needed a break to calm down and regroup.
And regroup they did and after a brilliant strike from Messi in the 52nd minute, Athletic’s lead was cut in half. Neymar was brought down on the left side, winning a free kick for Barcelona. Everybody was expecting a cross to the middle, including Iraizoz who already made a step to his left during the Messi run-up. And that one step was enough that he couldn’t prevent Messi’s accurate shot from crossing the line. Iraizoz almost managed to do so, however, palming the ball into the crossbar, but it caromed back down, just crossing the line before he again pushed it back into play, but the referee signaled goal.
And just like that, after being in a seemingly disastrous position before the second leg at the Camp Nou, Barcelona were back in a decent position. While still a goal down, they had now scored that all important away goal. But there was still roughly 40 minutes of football left to play at the San Mames.
A little over ten minutes after halving the deficit, Barcelona came very close to leveling the score. Neymar, who was causing all kinds of problems to the right side of the Athletic defense, fired a curling right-footed shot destined to sail just under the crossbar, but Iraizoz was able to tip it over.
Around the 70 minute mark, both managers started looking toward their respective benches for options. Valverde pulled the trigger first, brining on Iker Muniain for Enric Saborit. Moments later, Luis Enrique pulled Ivan Rakitić to the bench and replaced him with Andre Gomes. Athletic were down to 10 men in the 74th minute after Garcia clumsily brought down Neymar for a second bookable offense and an early shower. Valverde reacted quickly, putting on Javi Eraso in place of Aduriz.
Barcelona had another chance to tie the game up in the 79th minute. Alba excellently controlled the ball on the left side and quickly found Messi in a dangerous spot. But Messi wanted some more space for the shot and dribbled past his marker, only to find another one who dispossessed him. Barcelona had another chance from the ensuing loose ball, but that shot was blocked.
Two minutes later, Neymar “won” another red card for an Athletic Bilbao player. Ander Iturraspe received a second yellow card for bringing down the Brazilian speedster after he skipped past the Spaniard. Valverde again wasted no time in solidifying his defensive ranks, bringing on Gorka Elustondo in place of his last attacker, Williams.
A siege of Athletic’s eight man defensive line began. And for the last part of it, Lucho went all in, bringing on Paco Alcacer in place of Umititi in the 88th minute. But with all Athletic players sitting so deep there was almost no space for Barcelona to create a scoring opportunity. In the dying seconds however, Barcelona had a corner kick, their last opportunity to leave Bilbao with a draw. The ball found Pique near the penalty spot, but it was cleared away before he could set up for the shot. However, the ball fell to Messi who fired on goal, but was denied by the post. The rebound found the completely unprepared Alcacer who completely misfired for the final score of 2-1 for Athletic.
Barcelona will look to complete the comeback on Wednesday, 11 January at the Camp Nou, but a tough trip to Villarreal is up first.