A 90th minute goal from Ander Herrera denied Barça victory at San Mames tonight meaning any possible celebration for winning La Liga wìll have to wait at least another week. Barça had been heading for defeat after Markel Susaeta fired Athletic into a first half lead but Leo Messi turned things round after coming on as a substitute after an hour with a brilliant individual goal followed by an assist for Alexis Sanchez.
Barça had begun the game in pretty much the same vein as we had seen in Munich. Athletic appeared more motivated and the Basques won all the early 50/50 balls. In the 6th minute Gerard Piqué lost the ball to Oscar De Marcos near the corner flag, the ball came inside to Herrera whose low cross was just out of reach of Aduriz sliding in at the far post.
After a poor opening 10 minutes Barça began to wake up a little. Dani Alves showed a good example by battling to win a free kick on the right, Xavi Hernandez’s chipped cross was just too high for Piqué who’d got into a free position but couldn’t keep his header down. A minute later Cesc Fabregas sent a pass forward for Alexis’s diagonal run and the Chilean took the ball nicely in his stride before sending in a low shot from the edge of the area that bounced out off the far post.
Athletic responded with a header straight at Victor Valdés from Mikel San Jose but Barça were beginning to look more comfortable with Alex Song putting order to the midfield. In the 23rd minute Song found Xavi who played a quick one-two with Pedro before sending the ball into Song who’d continued his run but the final low shot from the Cameroonian lacked pace and Gorka Iraizoz dived to save.
Soon after Xavi tried his luck from 25 yards but failed to find the target and a minute later Athletic took the lead. Alves played a ball up the line towards Pedro who was robbed by the quick anticipation of Jon Aurtenetxe, the ball came forward to Iker Muniain who was allowed to enter the penalty area where he easily beat Piqué before whipping in a low cross that was met by Susaeta who knocked the ball in from two yards at the far post.
The reaction from Barça was disappointing with little direction going forward. Athletic might have made it 2-0 shortly before half time after a splendid cross from De Marcos but Aduriz’s header flew over the bar. Then just before the break Xavi sent a long ball forward for Fabregas who dribbled past Borja Ekiza but when the keeper came out Cesc could only pass the ball across the face of the goal where there was nobody to stick the ball home.
Adriano replaced Eric Abidal at half time as the Frenchman had a slight muscle strain but there was little improvement from Barça. In the 52nd minute a quick exchange of passes gave Xavi the chance to send Alexis into the right of the area, Ekiza seemed to use his arm to knock the Chilean off the ball and referee Iglesias Villanueva waved play on. Four minutes later Susaeta curled a free kick onto the crossbar and Aduriz following up headed narrowly wide.
With half an hour remaining Tito Vilanova called for Leo Messi and the Argentinian had an immediate effect on the game. Within 20 seconds he had already had a shot blocked and a minute later he showed speed to sprint away from San José before setting up Pedro on the right but Pedro’s low shot was too close to Iraizoz.
Messi’s appearance seemed to inspire his team-mates. Alves made one excellent run forward before squaring for Alexis 15 yards out but his low shot went straight at Iraizoz. Then in the 67th minute Thiago brought the ball forward before finding Messi 30 yards out, the Argentinian skipped to the left to beat San José’s lunge before twisting right to go past Gurpegi and then left again as he slalomed past Herrera, arriving to the edge of the area from where he fired low into the far corner for an authentic golazo.
Two minutes later Piqué sent the ball forward to Alves on the right and the Brazilian’s cross found Messi storming into the area to try a header that was flying a good couple of yards wide until Alexis got in the way, controlling with his chest before sweeping the ball low past Iraizoz from six yards.
The double blow seemed to have killed off Athletic and there was little danger on Barça’s goal as the clock ticked towards full time. Alves had a chance to wrap things up but he shot too close to Iraizoz and Athletic made one last push to find an equalizer. In the 89th minute Song lost the ball in midfield but he did well to get back and rob Muniain as he entered the area. Then a minute later Piqué allowed a cross from the left, Song jumped for the ball but didn’t arrive, perhaps putting off Adriano who could only head weakly out to Herrera who cracked in a low shot that beat Valdés at his near post.
To be fair Barça didn’t deserve the three points after a disappointing first hour. As in Munich we were outfought by a team who showed more desire for the victory. One has to ask questions about the team selection with only four changes to the starting XI in Munich, with Alves, Piqué and Xavi all starting when we will need these players as fresh as possible for the return with Bayern on Wednesday. Surely today was a day to give some youngsters another chance and we could easily have played with Montoya, Bartrá and Dos Santos and these players would probably have shown more ambition. Madrid’s victory at Atlético means we are still five points away from clinching the league but for now we must switch our attention back to the Champions League. The impact from Messi today can give us hope as he showed how with a couple of interventions we can score two goals in as many minutes. However, we will need a big improvement from the rest of the players as we must have everybody at their best if we are going to stand any chance of pulling off the miracle against Bayern
Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, San José (Ramalho m70), Ekiza, Aurtenetxe (Ibai Gomez m73); Gurpegui, De Marcos, Herrera; Susaeta, Aduriz (Llorente m74), Muniain.
Barça: Valdés 5.5; Alves 6, Piqué 5, Abidal 6 (Adriano m45, 6), Alba 5.5; Xavi 6 (Messi m59, 8), Song 6.5, Thiago 6.5; Alexis 6.5 (Iniesta m78, 6), Fàbregas 5.5, Pedro 5.5.
Goals: m27 Susaeta 1-0, m67 Messi 1-1, m69 Alexis 1-2, m90 Herrera 2-2.
Yellow cards: m35 Fabregas (misses next league match), m39 Herrera, m55 Adriano, m86 Gurpegi, m93 De Marcos.