Barça showed good character tonight to overcome a spirited Athletic Bilbao in a tight game at Camp Nou. Following the draw last week at Sporting and the defeat at Arsenal, things were not looking good after Athletic equalized David Villa’s early goal, and with the minutes ticking away one could begin to imagine the headlines of a Barça crisis if we didn’t win this one but Leo Messi popped up to grab the winner in the 78th minute to maintain our five-point advantage over closest rivals Real Madrid.
The big news before the game was the injury to Victor Valdés’s left knee which could see him out of action for two weeks. He could be back in time for the game with Zaragoza and if nothing goes wrong there should be no problem to have him back against Arsenal though we will miss him for the difficult trips to Mallorca and Valencia. We are also still missing Carles Puyol and there is no clear indication of when he’ll be ok again. Today Pep Guardiola decided to play Sergio Busquets at centre back with mixed results, in the first half especially we saw some very interesting tactical changes with Busquets pushing into midfield at times and also switching positions with Eric Abidal. It often gave us a man over in midfield which meant we had no problem in keeping the ball for long periods but perhaps the tactics were just a little too elaborate as Athletic had two excellent chances in the first half to score, though this could also be down to Piqué having an off day.
The other main tactical point of note was that Pedro played wide on the left with Villa in the middle with Messi playing a deeper wandering role. This left the right wing with nobody but Alves, and our Brazilian full back attacked this space to great effect throughout the game. In the 4th minute a tpical patient build-up found Xavi with the ball 35 yards out moving towards the left, with a swift manouever Xavi doubled back on himself and sent a splendid pass for Alves’s run, Alves may have been an inch offside but the linesman’s flag stayed down and he received the ball with a volleyed square pass that found Villa steaming in to fire home with power and precision. It was Vila’s fourth goal in four games and he is really beginning to look the part now. Later in the first half Villa again showed how dangerous he is receiving a pass from deep before chipping the ball over the keeper and onto the crossbar.
We seemed to be in perfect control of the game but Llorente caused us problems, first with a dribble past Piqué before setting up Susaeta for a header which Pinto touched round the post, and not long before half time it was Llorente who got above Busquets to meet Gabilondo’s cross and Pinto had to make a very good save throwing himself to the left. Maybe we should have taken the warning but we continued to look a little excentric at the back. At half time Athletic brought on Toquero which meant more pressure on our defenders. Early in the second half we again tried to play our way out of a tight corner at the back and Abidal gave a loose ball to Busquets who let the ball run with Llorente sneaking behind him, Busquets reacted by lunging for the ball and he appeared to make contact before his follow-through sent Llorente flying, it was a bit clumsy but we were perhaps a little unlucky that the ref pointed to the spot. Iraola was not put off by Pinto’s games on the line and he blasted the penalty firmly into the corner for the equaliser.
It should be said that we did not find it easy after Athletic’s goal. They fought very hard and for a while we looked shaky. Piqué’s lack of concentration gave the ball away to Toquero and Piqué was lucky to only see yellow for his subsequent foul. Toquero was then unlucky to get called back by the linesman’s flag when he was going through again. In attack we tended to try to go through the middle too much, and despite the undoubted genius of Messi and Iniesta dribbling past three players wins you nothing if there isn’t a finish. Some of the runs from this pair were remarkable, the one from Messi in the 58th minute, going past four before being clearly brought down by Javi Martinez, was simply brilliant, but perhaps Messi was just so fast the ref couldn’t follow the play which can be the only reason he missed such a clear penalty. Guardiola decided enough was enough and switched Busquets back to midfield with Maxwell coming on for Mascherano. We looked more comfortable after this but our attacks were too often still going through the middle.
Messi and Iniesta may have provided the dribbling skills, but it was the other Ballon d’Or candidate Xavi who showed he is the master of the pass. In the 70th minute he sent one through for Villa who was only denied by the goalkeeper’s fingertips. Then in the 78th minute it was Xavi again who found the pass forward to Alves who was forward yet again, this time to provide a low cross to the near post where Messi flicked it in for his 25th Liga goal of the season. Athletic had little reaction after the goal and the result did not look in danger in the final minutes, Messi and Iniesta both had time for another run each, Messi going past the entire defence diagonally from right to left before being denied again by a good save.
Barça: Pinto 7.5; Alves 8.5, Piqué 5, Busquets 6.5, Abidal 7; Xavi 8.5, Mascherano 6.5, Iniesta 7.5; Pedro 6.5, Messi 7.5, Villa 8.
Goals: m4 Villa 1-0, m50 Iraola (pen) 1-1, m78 Messi 2-1
Barça yellows: m33 Alves, m49 Busquets, m51 Piqué.