Monday, 21 February 2011

Match Report: Barcelona 2 Athletic Bilbao 1

Pep Guardiola and his men endured a nervous evening before eventually breaking down a determined Athletic Bilbao to win 2-1 and move back five points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.

With much of the build-up dominated by Barca’s so called crisis after two games without victory both managers successfully pulled the wool over media eyes into their thoughts with surprises in both line-ups.

For Barcelona, Maxwell was selected as the scapegoat for the defeat to Arsenal in midweek and was dropped to the bench with Sergio Busquets a surprise choice at left-back and Javier Mascherano moving into the Spanish international’s position in midfield.

Jaoquin Caparros also defied his own pre-match talk by starting with the 4-5-1 system that met with success against Barcelona in the two Copa Del Rey ties in January. The surprise coming more in the personel selected to deploy this system with Gaizka Toquero, Iker Muniain and Daivd Lopez all dropped to the bench. Igor Gabilondo, Ander Iturraspe and Markel Susaeta supporting Fernando Llorente in attack.

Yet, no sooner had Caparros set out his stall than his side were behind. Danni Alves – who was to prove Barca’s key attacking threat in the final third – receiving a ball over the top from Xavi and laying the ball back first time for David Villa to fire home.

The early goal seemed to settle any nerves that Barca may have been suffering, their natural passing game coming to the fore but on many occasions overplaying in and around the box cost them the chance of a second goal.

However, Athletic also posed a threat on the break. Llorente showing good skill to turn Gerard Pique and send in a cross that Susaeta headed wide at the near post.

Villa nearly had his second when his wonderful chipped effort – a very similar effort to the one he scored with last week against his beloved Sporting Gijon – came crashing off the bar.

Llorente was then denied by a brilliant save from Jose Pinto in the Barca goal, the reserve goalkeeper making the most of his outing in the absence of Victor Valdes through injury. To be fair to the Spanish international striker he could have done little more with his towering header that Pinto beat away with a strong left hand.

At the break Caparros went for a more aggressive approach, replacing Iturraspe with Toquero. And his boldness was immediately rewarded. Slack defending between Eric Abidal and Busquets saw the Frenchman put his colleague in all sorts of problems with a pass into his own area and on the stretch Busquets brought down Llorente for what was a stonewall penalty.

After Llorente’s miss against Atelti a fortnight ago and with David Lopez and Muniain off the pitch, the penalty duties were handed to right-back Andoni Iraola and he dispatched it with ease, sending Pinto the wrong way.

Two minutes later Barca were lucky to still have 11 men on the field, Pique hauling down Toquero when the visitors had a clear two on one on the Barca goal. Pique more than happy to see the referee produce only a yellow card.

The home fans and more obviously their manager were now very much on edge, their mood not improved 10 minutes later when after a mesmorising Leo Messi run past four players he was upended in the box by Javi Martinez. Referee, Ramirez Dominguez, this time waving away the penalty appeals.

Messi looked bemused, Guardiola infuriated, Sandro Rossell, just about maintaining his manners in the palco, looking more disgusted than he did at the thought of minimum wage standards for Nike factory workers.

Yet, the most interesting factor in the match to this point had been the performance of Barca’s two Argentineans. Messi had been far from his best - too often running down blind alleys and trying the through the eye of a needle pass - whilst, in contrast, Javier Mascherano had been having one of his best games in a Barcelona jersey. The Argentine captain breaking up play well without conceding too many fouls and distributing the ball more quickly and effectively than he has in other appearances.

But all that was about to change.

With Barca desperately in search of a winning goal, Guaridiola resorted to his strongest available starting XI. Off went Mascherano and on came Maxwell, Busquests moving back into his more familiar role. More importantly for the outcome of the match it was about to become the Messi show.

Slaloming between desperate Athletic legs time and again la pulga saw an effort fly over before Villa was denied by a quite brilliant save from Gorka Iraizoz.

The pressure was beginning to pay, Athletic were no longer breaking with purpose as the invited waves upon waves of Barca attack and eventually Messi did make his mark. Again the long diagonal ball over the top from Xavi for Alves was the key; the Brazilian then squaring for Messi to stroke home at the near post.

Alves and Messi should have added a third as three times Barca caught the visiting defence exposed in the final minutes but in the end it mattered little as the champions comfortably held on the for the three points.

Three points that meant more than their raw value. The faces of Guardiola, Puyol and Rossell told of their relief at the final whistle. If February is to be the nadir of Guardiola’s Barca then they have successfully negotiated their penultimate hurdle.

Oddly it was also a good weekend for Athletic. Defeat for Espanyol and disappointing draws for Villarreal and Valencia leave them still very much in the hunt for a fourth place finish.

Barcelona 2 (Villa 2, Messi 78) – Athletic Bilbao 1 (Iraola (pen) 50)

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