With a dominant first half and a sub-par second, Barcelona made relatively easy work of Athletic Bilbao to, at least temporarily, increase their La Liga lead to eleven points. With first half goals from Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi Barcelona controlled their way to their 23rd win of the season.
From the opening whistle, Barcelona were dominating their Basque opponents. Just four minutes in, Barcelona had their first scoring opportunity, with Messi curling a free kick on target, but Kepa Arrizabalaga made the save. Four minutes later, Barcelona took the lead through Alcacer. Getting a rare chance in the starting XI, Paco finished off a lovely flowing move by one-timing the ball inside the far post. The goal probably shouldn’t have counted though as Jordi Alba, who picked up the assist, was just leaning offside in the build-up to the goal.
Barcelona were on form against a tough opponent and chances were coming in quick succession. Just after the ten minutes mark Paulinho fired from distance, but Kepa was well positioned to make the save. The very next minute Messi had two good opportunities, once from distance and one from the right side, but both times he was denied by Kepa. In the 14th minute, Coutinho played a one-two with Alba, with the Spaniard providing another lovely cut-back to set up an opportunity for the Brazilian, but Coutinho’s shot bounced off the crossbar.
The Catalans continued to attack, but the visitors were starting to show some life in attack as well, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen went largely untested. Barcelona, however, were buzzing, and they looked to extend their lead in the 26th minute when Coutinho found Ousmane Dembele deep inside the area, but Dembele’s drive went right at Kepa who prevented a sure goal.
At the half hour mark the hosts finally doubled their lead. Dembele found Messi on the edge of the area – and with all the magic Messi already displayed in this one with his dribbling the Camp Nou knew a Messi goal was inevitable. Messi fired from the edge of the area and his powerful low shot whistled past Kepa and just inside the post. Four minutes later, Paulinho found Coutinho with a brilliant over the top ball. Presented with a tough chance, Coutinho flicked the ball over the goalkeeper but was yet again denied by the bar.
In the dying moments of the first half, Paulinho again tried his luck from distance, after another play that displayed Dembele’s lovely vision. Pauinho’s shot had Kepa beat but for the third time in the half, the frame of the goal prevented more celebrations at the Camp Nou.
After a substitution, with Ander Iturraspe replacing Benat, Athletic Bilbao started the second half in much brighter fashion. Barcelona’s utter dominance was gone and the visitors were spending some time in the Barcelona third. After being outshot 11-0 after the first half, Athletic fired their first shot, albeit off target, in the 47th minute. Athletic were looking dangerous as Barcelona struggled to control the ball but the visitors’ chances remained few and far between, with the Barcelona defense doing a good job limiting their looks on goal and ter Stegen continued to be mostly a spectator.
With Barcelona’s dominance of ball possession gone, the Catalans relied on their very good counter attack game to venture forward but Kepa wasn’t called into action much. Needing help in midfield, Valverde quickly prepared Andres Iniesta who joined the game in the 64th minute in place of Dembele. Even with Iniesta on the pitch Barcelona didn’t look nearly as dominant as they did in the first half. The passes were often just slightly off the mark – leading to easy turnovers – but the visitors couldn’t create much from these turnovers.
With Athletic picking up steam, Ernesto Valverde saw the need to close down space even more, taking off Alcacer in the 74th minute and replacing him with Aleix Vidal. But Barcelona’s first half form was nowhere to be found as the Catalans often struggled to pass their way out of their own area. It was a massive turnaround compared to the first half as numerous Barcelona players suddenly had all kinds of problems. Some of it came as a result of Athletic’s pressing high up the pitch, but Barcelona often have to deal with such play, however, the only one who seemed to easily deal with that was Iniesta who was making dazzling plays all over the pitch.
Coming into the last 15 minutes Barcelona slowly started to show some life again, but Kepa continued to have an easy time in goal, only having to make an easy save on Messi’s partially blocked shot. Athletic though continued to attack, but with little success. For the last five minutes Valverde added some more muscle to the pitch, bringing on Andre Gomes in Coutinho’s spot. After a largely uneventful last stage of the match Barcelona earned another three points to their total, going into the international break on a high note. Barcelona will be in action again on March 31 when they travel to the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán to take on Sevilla.