Barcelona into third
This looked a tough game on paper for Barcelona but they passed the test at Athletic with flying colors to move into third place in the league table after 17 games.
There have been plenty of doom-merchants this season insisting Barca would struggle for a Champions League place but victory even had Ronald Koeman talking about the title again.
“The title race is still open because the season is very long. There can be injuries, teams can have downturns and a side that looks very good can end up struggling.”
Barca are still seven points off Atletico, who also have two games in hand, but Wednesday’s match certainly offered plenty of optimism after a tough start to 2020-21.
Yet more performances like this will still be needed before fans will really believe Koeman’s team are heading in the right direction, starting on Saturday at Granada.
Messi gets back to his best
Lionel Messi put in arguably his best performance of the season against Athletic and was a little unfortunate not to leave the pitch with a hat-trick and the matchball under his arm.
Barca’s first goal came after an outrageous pass from Messi to Frenkie de Jong, while the captain then put Barca ahead with a lovely finish after a backheel from Pedri.
Another brilliant finish put Barca 3-1 up and saw Messi set a record at the new San Mames.
2 - Lionel Messi has become the first @FCBarcelona player to score a brace at the new San Mamés in @LaLigaEN – the previous player to score two goals in a LaLiga away game for the club against Athletic Club was Javier Saviola in April 2002 at the old San Mamés. Sanctified. pic.twitter.com/gaS429I0xw— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 6, 2021
There could have been more goals for the captain too. He had one chalked off for offside and hit the Athletic woodwork twice during his 90 minutes.
Messi’s goals move him joint top of the Pichichi standings in La Liga, but perhaps the best thing of all was seeing the Barcelona captain looking the happiest he’s been for a long time.
Pedri continues to shine
One of the reasons for Messi’s happiness is surely new team-mate Pedri. The duo once again linked brilliantly, and the 18-year-old also ensured that Messi wasn’t the only one who went home with a record at San Mames.
Pedri’s equalizer gave Barca belief after a tough start, and according to the youngster was the first goal he’s ever scored with his head, while his backheeled assist for Messi was a real highlight of the match.
The 18-year-old already looks the smartest buy Barcelona have made in a very long time and is certainly making his presence felt at the club in his first season in La Liga.
Antoine Griezmann was back in the starting XI against Athletic, at the expense of Martin Braithwaite, and put in a typically hardworking performance.
The Frenchman is on a dry patch in front of goal, and has now gone eight games without finding the back of the net, but did set up Sergino Dest for a great early chance.
Griezmann then went on to get an assist for Messi’s third goal and there’s no doubt he put in a real shift at San Mames.
The World Cup winner did not have quite the same impact on the match as Messi, Pedri, Frenkie de Jong or Ousmane Dembele managed, but his performance should provide a much-needed confidence boost.
Koeman’s team starting to take shape?
Koeman has experimented with different formations and personnel in recent weeks in an attempt to find the right balance, but Wednesday’s match suggested he’s not far off finding his best starting XI at Barcelona after all.
Injuries have not helped but on the plus side Gerard Pique’s absence has allowed Ronald Araujo to play regularly and the Uruguayan put in a commanding performance against Athletic.
Meanwhile, Frenkie de Jong looks to be finally starting to rediscover the sort of form that made Barca decide to bring him in from Ajax. The Dutchman now has two goals and two assists in his last seven outings.
Dembele is another player who impressed and his incredible speed and ability to beat players offers the attack some much-needed unpredictability. Koeman praised the Frenchman after the game and will be desperately hoping he can finally stay fit.
The big question now will be if Barca can maintain this form. The team are now seven games unbeaten but too often this season have dropped points after encouraging displays.