Goals from Andres Iniesta and Leo Messi earned Barça a 2-0 victory over Athletic Club at Camp Nou tonight. News of Real Madrid’s 1-5 win in Pamplona dampened the atmosphere a little before kick off, but Barça stuck to the task of winning the three points to maintain the difference behind the leaders at six points.
Pep Guardiola made just three changes to the team that drew in Milan. Adriano recovered ahead of time to replace Puyol at left back, Thiago came in for Xavi in midfield, and Tello played on the left wing with Iniesta moving back to midfield in place of Keita. Cesc Fabregas was left out due to a slight back injury. Athletic coach Marcelo Bielsa made four changes to the team that beat Schalke 2-4 on Thursday, Ekiza, Iñigo Perez, Toquero and Ibai came in for Amorebieta, Herrera, Llorente and Muniain.
With Athletic’s pressing game with man-to-man marking it was up to our centre backs to bring the ball forward. This was ususually Piqué and we were treated to the spectacular display from Toquero of chasing back to no avail. The willingness and sacrifice of Athletic’s centre forward was admirable but there is a problem with working so hard when the opposition have the ball, and that is that when you do regain possession you have little energy left to do much with it, and this more or less summed up Athletic’s game tonight.
With one-to-one battles all round the pitch, Barça have the great advantage of possessing players such as Messi and Iniesta who are so difficult to get the ball off. Messi had been greeted by a giant banner that read half in Catalan and half in Argentinian Spanish “Leo, ets únic, sos grande” (Leo, you are unique, you are great), and in the 7th minute he produced a stylish chipped pass to Alves, of the quality that only he can produce, but when Alves set up Thiago to score the young midfielder was judged to be half a yard offside.
In the early exchanges we had difficulty finding decent shooting chances. However, Messi nearly put us ahead in the 25th minute with a quickly taken free kick that was reminiscent of the goal he scored at the Calderon six weeks ago, only this time the position was more central and Iraizoz was alert enough to make a brilliant save. Soon after Messi’s cross from the right found Piqué sneaking in at the far post but Iturraspe headed the ball off the line.
Iniesta tried his luck with a drive from 25 yards only to be denied by Iraizoz’s fingertips, then Messi was denied by Ekiza’s last ditch tackle. Barça kept up the pressure and finally broke the deadlock five minutes before the break. If Toquero had been impressive for his work-rate then Alexis Sanchez also deserves praise. Winning the ball from Ibai, Alexis played the ball to Messi who found Iniesta who took the ball on and on into the area before blasting high into the net past the helpless Iraizoz from 8 yards out. A minute later Messi went for the kill but was denied by Iraizoz’s low dive to his left and the first half ended with a run and shot from Adriano but the goalkeeper was again equal to it.
Barça continued to control the game in the second half. Cristian Tello had been very quiet on the left but he might have increased our lead in the 55th minute after Messi caused confusion in the defence, but Tello’s sidefoot was within reach of Iraizoz. A couple of minutes later Tello went outside Javi Martinez and the Athletic captain made a slight pull at Tello who then, it must be said, went down too easily. I must admit I thought the ref had pulled a yellow card for Tello but it was in fact for Martinez and the penalty was awarded. Messi fired low into the corner from the spot to make it 2-0.
The game was as good as over from this moment though Athletic did manage one late goal attempt when Piqué had to clear off the line from Muniain with Valdés beaten. Barça might have added another near the end but Keita’s shot flew off the top of the bar after Messi miraculously worked the ball through to him, and Pedro was denied by the defence after Xavi’s through ball.
All in all a comfortable win and good preparation for the big game with Milan on Tuesday. It was good to have Iniesta back in midfield but the wide left forward position remains a slight problem as Tello seems much more effective coming on as a substitute. With a decision also to be taken for who plays left back it will be important to find the right balance on Tuesday.
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 7.5, Piqué 7.5, Mascherano 7.5, Adriano 7; Thiago 7, Busquets 7, Iniesta 8 (Xavi m77, 7); Alexis 7.5 (Keita m75, 6.5), Messi 7.5, Tello 6 (Pedro m62, 6).
Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, Javi Martinez, Ekiza, Aurtenetxe; Iturraspe, Iñigo Perez (Herrera m45), De Marcos; Susaeta, Toquero (Llorente m59), Ibai (Muniain m45).
Goals: m40 Iniesta 1-0, m58 Messi (pen) 2-0.
Yellow cards: m52 Toquero, m56 Iturraspe, m58 J.Martinez, m66 Busquets.