Despite a poor showing at the Sam Mames Barcelona were able to pick up a point against a highly motivated Athletic Bilbao. Despite some good scoring chances, most of them by the home side, the game ended scoreless and Barcelona restored their six point lead in La Liga, this time with Real Madrid their closest pursuer.
With a couple unavailable players in key places, Ernesto Valverde had to make some changes, moving Nelson Semedo from the right side to the left of the defense, with Sergi Roberto taking up the right side. Arturo Vidal took Arthurs’ spot in midfield while Lionel Messi was deemed fit enough to start the tough away game, while Ousmane Dembele took a seat on the bench for the first time since picking up the ankle injury against Leganes.
The match started with both sides playing a high-tempo game, as Barcelona looked to control the ball amid high press from the home team. The first good look for either side didn’t come until the 11th when Vidal turned the ball over in midfield to send Yuri Berchiche sprinting past Roberto. The former PSG man fired from the left wing, but missed the far post by about a foot.
Against a highly organized Athletic Bilbao side Barcelona couldn’t really get going. The constant pressure on the ball-carrier caused all kinds of problems as the calming presence of Arthur was sorely missed in midfield. Athletic though seemingly always looked dangerous when in possession inside Barcelona’s third of the pitch. Markel Susaeta tried his luck from the edge of the area after finding a soft spot between Semedo and Clement Lenglet, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a brilliant panther-like save.
While Barcelona continued to be largely anonymous in attack, where the right wing with Roberto failed to deliver anything, Athletic threatened again in the 23rd minute, this time through an acrobatic finish from Raul Garcia but ter Stegen was in perfect position to make the save. On numerous occasions the hosts proved to be dangerous on the counter-attack, while Barcelona’s possession play struggled. Turnovers often cost the Catalans and as a result Iago Herrerín didn’t have to face a single shot after the opening half hour, while the hosts fired six.
Messi didn’t quite look 100%, Philippe Coutinho and Arturo Vidal were largely ineffectual while Luis Suarez struggled to control the ball on a couple occasions. A combination off all those aspects, as well as a couple others, resulted in the fact that Barcelona didn’t take their first shot until the 36th minute when Herrerín saved Messi’s try.
However, that proved to be a rare bright spot for Barcelona in the first half as the hosts would create the next chance, in the 41st minute, with Garcia getting a chance after a poor clearance, but his shot whistled wide of ter Stegen’s near post. Athletic’s full-pitch press was relentless and Barcelona needed to make some adjustments during the halftime break in an effort to extend their La Liga lead.
After one of the worst halves in recent memory Valverde elected to make no changes to the lineup. However, Barcelona started the second half brightly, quickly pinning the hosts deep, but the Catalans couldn’t create any good looks on goal, despite some good zone time. Gaizka Garitano reacted quickly to Barcelona’s early success and brought on Mikel San Jose in place of Beñat Etxebarria.
Barcelona were showing much more life while Athletic couldn’t quite keep up with the high-intensity press they showed in the first half. But despite the intensity Herrerín went largely untested. Just after the one hour mark Iker Muniain replaced Susaeta on the pitch for the hosts. Moments later Valverde made his first change, bringing on Carles Alena in place of the largely wasteful Vidal.
Amid Barcelona’s strongest pressure of the match Athletic created their first chance after the break as Barcelona’s defense forgot about the trailing San Jose for the long range shot, but the substitute missed the target. Time was running out for Barcelona to take advantage of Atletico Madrid losing their derby match against their city rivals and even though the Catalans were attacking a goal didn’t seem to be in the cards.
Valverde wasn’t giving up though and in the 75th minute he brought on Dembele to replace Coutinho after another poor showing. Lacking match fitness, however, Dembele couldn’t provide the much needed spark. In fact, with ten minutes left to play Athletic proved more dangerous and Iñaki Williams had a great chance to score after a floated free kick, but missed. On the same play Lenglet took a hit to the head, but was able to return – however not before Athletic almost took advantage of Lenglet’s absence. Less than a minute later Williams had an even better chance after a perfect pass from Munian, but ter Stegen made a crucial stop.
Barcelona’s wastefulness in possession proved costly as the Catalan’s couldn’t put up much sustained pressure. Williams would take another shot on goal in the 86th minute, but once again ter Stegen was there to make the save. For the final few minutes Thomas Vermaelen replaced the hurting Lenglet. Five minutes were added on and in the first minute of added time Oscar de Marcos was sent off after picking up a second yellow card.
Buoyed by the man advantage Barcelona were pushing, but apart from a relatively easy save on a Dembele curling effort Barcelona couldn’t muster. After a last second VAR review for a possible Barcelona penalty kick the game ended in a scoreless draw – Barcelona’s third draw in a row. The Catalans will look to return to winning ways on Saturday against Real Valladolid.