Barcelona started their league title defense with a disappointing showing and a loss against Athletic Bilbao. A curious midfield alongside numerous below par performances from certain individuals left Barcelona more or less powerless against a highly energized home side who were propelled to victory by a late Aritz Aduriz goal, who joined play just moments earlier.
Due to injury, Barcelona were forced to start the La Liga season without Lionel Messi, but the front three still posed plenty of dangerous names, with Antoine Griezmann making his debut. In midfield, Frenkie de Jong also featured in his first official Barcelona match, surprisingly alongside Sergi Roberto and Carles Alena. The four defenders were as expected. In fact, the line-up Ernesto Valverde sent out was the same as it was against Napoli in the final preseason match.
As expected, the hosts started very aggressively, meeting Barcelona high up the pitch, creating numerous turnovers in the early going. From one of those turnovers, Athletic fired the first shot on goal of the new season - Iñaki Williams trying to surprise Marc-Andre ter Stegen from 35-yards out, but the German in goal made a very strong save.
Barcelona’s first push forward came around the ten minute mark, but all the Catalans had to show for were two corner kicks that went by without much fuss. In the 15th minute, the hosts again threatened through Williams, who was sprung through down the left side, but once again ter Stegen won the battle. Athletic were proving dangerous whenever they ventured forward, while Barcelona showed very little imagination on the pitch. Oftentimes Barcelona were able to control the ball in midfield, but the hosts’ peskiness in coverage and excellent movement, gave Barcelona very few options.
Struggles continued for the Catalan side, especially in attack, where the front three continued to be cut off from play, while the full backs, Jordi Alba especially, offered little in support. Alba did wake up a bit around the half-hour mark to send a decent low cross into the middle, but the half-chance was quickly wasted. After 30 minutes of play, Athletic fired three shots on goal, while Barcelona didn’t attempt a single try.
In the 32nd minute, Barcelona were gifted an unlikely golden chance after Unai López sent a back pass right to Luis Suarez, who was testing his ankle/calf after picking up a knock, well behind the play. The Uruguayan fired immediately, beating goalkeeper Unai Simón, but was then denied by the goalpost. Not only did Suarez squander the opportunity, but just seconds later asked for a substitution. Suarez received some treatment on the sidelines, but ultimately had to take a seat on the bench. Rafinha replaced the striker, but not before Athletic almost took advantage of Barcelona playing with ten, after a poor read from Alba, but Raul Garcia couldn’t bury the pass from a very good spot.
With Rafinha joining play, several changes followed as Ousmane Dembele switched wings, moving to the left, Griezmann taking Suarez’s “old” spot, with Rafinha taking up the right wing. It was yet another problem for Barcelona to handle, who also had a problem in midfield where Sergi Roberto struggled to do anything right.
Despite playing a relatively poor first half, Barcelona came within inches of taking the lead in the 44th minute. Rafinha took matters into his own feet, firing a left footed drive from the right side, seemingly destined for the side netting, but Simón got just enough of the ball to redirect it onto the crossbar to keep the game scoreless going into the halftime break.
Several problematic areas were exposed in the opening 45 minutes of the new season for Barcelona, from disconnect on both wings to Roberto’s lack of full-time midfield experience. In an effort to improve his team’s play, Valverde made his second personnel change during halftime, leaving Alena in the locker room and bringing out Ivan Rakitić instead.
Barcelona began the second half much brighter, quickly pinning the hosts deep, creating a lovely opportunity in the 52nd minute after a brilliant pass from Dembele to Rafinha, but Rafinha couldn’t finish off the play. Athletic recovered in the following minutes to create a couple half-chances of their own, but the game remained scoreless.
After a positive start to the half, Barcelona proceeded to show very little on the pitch. The visitors didn’t create anything noteworthy until the 70th minute when Rakitić fired from inside the area, but the Croatian’s shot whistled over the bar. Five minutes later, youngster Carles Perez replaced Roberto on the pitch, moving Rafinha into the midfield. Rafinha continued to show good moves even from midfield, creating an excellent chance in the 80th minute after a lovely run between defenders, but his shot was blocked just wide.
With Athletic’s high press waning, Barcelona were enjoying more command on the pitch, but creating scoring chances remained nearly impossible. And for their lethargic play in attack, Barcelona were punished in the 89th minute. The hosts showed little in the second part of the second half, perhaps paying a toll for the constant running and aggressive play, but they took the lead after substitute Aduriz scored a brilliant goal after a cross from the right side.
Barcelona immediately went on the offensive, even quickly created a scoring opportunity after a free kick, but Clement Lenglet’s header was saved by Simón. The final whistle blew after three minutes of added time and the hosts deservedly won the first match the new season. Games at the San Mames are never easy, but the way Barcelona played is more concerning than the actual final result. First home match of the season coming up next – against Real Betis.