An injury time goal from Leo Messi saved us a point in a thrilling game at San Mames tonight to keep our unbeaten record going this season. However, the draw will not be celebrated as it now leaves us three points behind rivals Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. The game was never going to be easy and the persistant rain did not help us, a slip from Javier Mascherano led to Ander Herrera putting Athletic in front after 20 minutes, but after Cesc Fabregas had headed in an equaliser there really was no escuse for the sloppy defending that gifted Athletic a Piqué own goal with ten minutes remaining.
The surprises in team selection today were that David Villa started on the bench, and there was also no place in the starting lineup for Seydou Keita who has always played in previous games in San Mames. Guardiola preferred to go for his “touch players” Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas who started at centre forward while Messi began on the right with Adriano on the left. The first decent move of the match came from Adriano moving inside and combining with Iniesta but Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz did enough to keep the ball out despite the ball squirming under his body.
However, Athletic were not to be outdone and in the 13th minute they created their first moment of danger when Piqué failed to cut out a through ball, Athletic had a man over but fortunately De Marcos hit his final effort over. The pressing from Athletic was constant which gave us very little time to think. In the 19th minute Valdés cleared, trying to find Alves but Susaeta nipped in to rob the ball before striding clear on the left as Mascherano slipped, as Piqué and Busquets moved across to cover Susaeta pulled the ball back to Ander Herrera who had time to pick his spot and curl one into the far corner past Valdés’s dive.
To be fair we responded well to the goal, Alves might have equalized a couple of minutes later but his shot from Messi’s pulled back free kick hit Iraizoz on the foot. We insisted with our attack and a minute later Abidal broke away on the left before sending a delicious cross that floated over Aurtenetxe for Fabregas to rise above the penalty spot and head firmly past Iraizoz for the equalizer. The goal led to a hectic period of open play most notable for three darting runs from Messi, the third time he managed to dink a pass through to Iniesta but Iraizoz was out quickly to save with his shins. However, we were never looking totally in control and in the 35th minute Muniaian should have done better after beating the offside trap but he failed to get good contact on his shot and Valdés was able to save easily. The first half ended with the home crowd angry with the referee after Adriano grabbed Iraola’s shirt as he entered the area but it was not the type of penalty you see awarded very often.
In the second half the conditions became more difficult as the constant rain began to leave a little surface watewr which made the circulation of the ball much more difficult. Watching the game I always had the feeling that Athletic were getting the best of things though it was Barça who had the better chances. In the 48th minute Fabregas was again in a good position inside the area but Adriano couldn’t convert his centre, then Iniesta had a great chance to chip Iraizoz who was way out of his goal but his 45 yard efford didn’t get enough height to clear the goalkeeper. Our next chance fell to Fabregas but he chose to pass to the offside Messi instead of shooting, and then when he did find Messi a few minutes later, the Argentinian’s side-foot was too soft and too close to Iraizoz.
Then with half an hour remaining Pep brought on Alexis for Xavi, with Fabregas moving back a bit but the change did not have the desired effect. Villa came on for Adriano but we were failing to find the final pass. Then in the 80th minute disaster struck. Athletic swung over a corner from the right, Piqué failed to connect with a header which may have slightly distracted Abidal who made a hash of his attempted clearence firing the ball against Llorente, from there the ball flew back at Piqué who could not react in time to do any more than see the ball bounce off him and across the line. It is a long time since I can remember such a defensive cock-up.
Again we responded and showed some fighting spirit. We almost got an own goal straight back after Messi sent a dangerous ball into Cesc but Amorebieta’s clearance bounced off Iraola and went just wide of the post. It was the type of thing that makes you feel it is not your day and it seemed even more so when Villa’s effort was saved in the 87th minute. However, we were fortunate again when Amorebieta got a second yellow card in the 90th minute and perhaps this led to a lack of organization at the back for Athletic, this is the only way to explain the mess they made between goalkeeper and defence a minute later which gifted Messi the chance to fire home the equalizer from 15 yards.
There were certainly some players who did not have their best games. Valdés could not have done much with Herrera’s shot but it was his poor kick that led to it and he also gave away possession a couple more times with poor distribution. Fabregas, despite a very good header for the goal, did not look very involved as the central striker, while all of our defence were guilty of some poor concentration (I still can’t believe that second goal!). However, my biggest beef here is with Guardiola. Obviously it is great to have so many options and also the tactical variations can surprise the opposition. However, it seems to me that the changes can also have the effect of confusing the team. I sometimes wonder whether Guardiola needs to make these changes to stop himself getting bored. He is obviously a tactical genius but the desire to show this and try out new things may have the effect of tiring out our own players mentally. They have to be very sharp to be constantly adapting to the changing positions and who knows, maybe that is why we showed such poor concentration defending that corner tonight.
Barça: Valdés 5.5; Alves 6.5, Mascherano 6, Piqué 5 (Thiago m81, 6), Abidal 6.5; Xavi 6 (Alexis m61, 6), Busquets 6, Iniesta 7; Messi 6.5, Fabregas 5.5, Adriano 6 (Villa m72, 6.5).
Goals: m19 Ander 1-0, m24 Fabregas 1-1, m80 Piqué o.g. 2-1, m91 Messi 2-2
Barça yellow card: m64 Piqué