Eric Abidal’s first goal for the club was enough to earn Barça a place in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals after a tense game at San Mames. Athletic had the better of the first half and although we were clearly in charge in the second half and we deserved to go in front with Abidal’s goal fifteen minutes from the end, a final charge from Athletic in the last quarter hour earned them an equalizer and had us on the back foot at the end. At the final whistle there was more relief for getting through than satisfaction for a good performance. Yes, we battled well, but we did not look as comfortable on the ball as usual and there were various mistakes from our players which led to some nervous moments.
As is customary, Pinto came into the team for the Copa, but the rest of the team was pretty much at full strength with the exception of Iniesta – who started on the bench meaning Keita came in on the left of midfield – and Puyol who was deemed not to be at 100% which gave Abidal a test at centre back where he performed well before switching to left back later in the game to score the goal. Adriano also had a chance at left back though he was chosen as the first to be substituted when Iniesta came on. There was no place for Bojan who disappointed in the first leg, Pep Guardiola prefering to stick with our front three of Pedro, Messi and Villa who were not as lethal as usual tonight.
We began well enough with Messi popping up on the right or through the middle, in the 8th minute he played the ball out to Alves who sent in a perfect cross to Villa who was unmarked and just six yards out but his header went to close to Gorka Iraizoz who managed to save. But Athletic were biting in all areas and without Iniesta we struggled to control the midfield, Busquets was playing deep and Xavi was tightly marked and Keita was patchy again though he does deserve praise for a couple of important interventions in defence.
Athletic began to come into the game and in the 14th minute Gabilondo pulled the ball back from the left and found Susaeta on the edge of the box and fortunately for us Susaeta fired this very good chance well over the bar. We responded with an excellent breakaway in the 19th minute after Pinto punched a corner clear, Messi carried the break deep into Athletic’s half before sending Pedro into the right of the area but Messi couldn’t arrive for Pedro’s attempted return. Mistakes at the back led to Llorente getting into the action, in the 23rd minute he got into the area on the left but his low cross found nobody to finish, then a couple of minutes later Abidal cleared straight to Susaeta and Alves did well to impede Llorente and prevent a header when Susaeta’s cross came in.
Our best chance of the first half came after a moment of quick thinking from Messi in the 31st minute. Pedro had been fouled 35 metres out, Messi grabbed the ball and took a quick free kick giving Xavi a clear shot at goal but unfortunately Xavi couldn’t celebrate his record breaking 550th appearance with a goal, sending the ball well over. We had struggled to find much control in midfield but in the 42nd minute we finally found a combination involving Xavi and Keita and then Pedro and Messi but the move ended with Pedro’s softish shot wide from 20 yards. We always knew there could be danger from corners or free kicks against a team like Athletic but apart from one header from Toquero that gave Pinto an easy save there had been little to worry us here, but then just before half time Gurpegui got above Villa to loop in a header that went just wide of the far post.
The second half began tightly with defences gaining the upper hand, the best attacking moment early on came with a run from Pedro on the right into the area but his low cross was cleared. It seemed that we were beginning to edge things but when Iniesta came on after an hour we really began to take charge of the game, and we began to see a series of occasions. First a decent looking pass from Xavi was just too far for Villa, then Pedro’s cross was agonisingly out of Messi’s reach, and soon after Alves sent another cross in for Villa but this was more difficult than his first half chance and he could only head just wide.
De Marcos came on for Toquero and immediately robbed Piqué causing a moment of panic but fortunately Busquets blocked Llorente’s effort. However, it was Barça who continued to look more dangerous at this stage, Villa had a shot from a very difficult angle saved, Messi was closed down after another attempt at penetrating the area and Busquets had a shot blocked. We were getting closer and the goal finally came from the most unlikely of sources. There is nothing strange to seeing Xavi sending a ball into Messi in the area, we have often seen Messi hold off one defender while drawing other defenders towards him, this time the space was created behind the right back, Messi slipped the pass through invitingly and Abidal side-footed home gleefully for his first goal since playing as a kid in his back yard as a seven-year-old.
Perhaps it was Eric’s historic goal that caused the team to lose concentration, it was almost as if the players were already imagining the Abidal headlines in the papers and they were over-excited at the thought. We again began to lose the ball in dangerous positions, Javi Martinez had an overhead effort go close, and then another mix-up gave Iraola the chance to shoot but Pinto kept his eye on the ball well as it came through a pack of legs and he gathered comfortably. However, we were in a mess at the back at in the 85th minute a ball behind Abidal found Iraola forward again on the right, he passed inside to Llorente who controlled the ball on the edge of the area and he just had time to stab the ball past Pinto. This set up an exciting finish but we managed to sort things out at the back. At the other end Villa had a couple of chances to take advantage of the growing spaces but it was not his night tonight. Right at the end Ibrahim Afellay came on for his Barça debut, hopefully we will see a bit more of him the next time but things were too tight to risk him for any longer tonight.
Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, Aitor Ocio, Ustariz, Koikili; Javi Martínez, Gurpegui, Susaeta (David Lopez m45), Gabilondo (Muniain m80); Toquero (De Marcos m67), Llorente.
Barça: Pinto 7; Alves 6.5, Piqué 7, Abidal 7.5, Adriano 6.5 (Iniesta m60, 7); Xavi 6 (Puyol m77, 6), Busquets 6, Keita 6.5; Pedro 6, Messi 6, Villa 5 (Afellay m91, –).
Goals: m75 Abidal 0-1, m85 Llorente 1-1.
Yellow cards: m20 Gurpegui, m26 Toquero, m53 Busquets, m56 Ustaritz, m80 Pinto.