La Liga is wide open again after Barça’s 1-0 loss to Athletic Club at the new San Mamés tonight. A goal from Iker Muniain in the 70th minute was enough to earn all three points for the Basque team as Barça slumped to a second defeat in a week. Atlético Madrid are now level with Barça on 40 points with Real Madrid three points behind in third place.
Barça had been criticised for the attitude shown in the defeat at Ajax on Tuesday and the players came out keen to show they are not afraid to work hard. The first ten minutes were frenetic with both teams frequently losing the ball under the energetic pressing, though Athletic were getting the better of things with Markel Susaeta having the game’s first chance after Muniain’s cross in the 7th minute but Adriano just got a touch with his head which was enough to put Susaeta off.
Barça then hit a splendid short spell with three decent attacks in four minutes. First, Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz had to make an excellent save to tip over after Alexis’s neat lay-off set up Neymar to shoot. Next, Sergio Busquets flicked the ball skillfully on for Iniesta to try his luck but he pulled his shot wide. Then, Neymar shot against the post but was called offside after neat build-up work from Busquets and Iniesta.
Barça were clearly trying to play the ball more quickly, using only one or two touches, but as well as the clever flicks the speed of the game also led to errors. The chances came at both ends with Mikel Rico shooting straight at Pinto from 25 yards and Adriano slicing well wide from a similar distance. Xavi had another below-par game in midfield but in the 24th minute he sent a great ball into the area for Montoya who took a moment too long before shooting which gave Aymeric Laporte the chance to slide in a make a saving block.
The best chance of the first half fell to Muniain in the 29th minute after Susaeta’s cross took a deflection off Iniesta which wrong-footed the Barça defence, the ball arrived to Muniain about five yards out but he ran his studs over the top of the ball and failed to make good contact which allowed a relieved Pinto to save.
Athletic were back on top again and they had the better of the remainder of the half. Some of the Barça players were having problems with their footing and Neymar, who had a particularly unfortunate game, needed to change his boots. The other main problem for Barça was with the full-back positions with both Montoya and Adriano struggling against Muniain and Susaeta. In the 39th minute Muniain got away again on the left and his cross found Toquero who sent his diving header wide.
Half time arrived without goals and the game was fairly evenly balanced. After the break Athletic again played a strong start to the half with Toquero once more trying his luck with a header from a corner which went straight at Pinto. Then in the 50th minute Barça had their best chance of the night. Fabregas sent a glorious ball into Neymar who controlled on his chest but then he slightly lost his balance before blazing his shot wide.
There was another moment in the 57th minute that might have swung the game in Barça’s favour. Fabregas again sent Neymar through and this time Iturraspe pushed the Brazilian from behind just outside the area. Iturraspe could have seen red for the challenge but referee Martínez Munuera saw it as only worthy of a yellow. Busquets was also booked for protesting and Neymar curled the free-kick a foot wide.
The game was still wide open. Toquero looped another header goalwards which allowed Pinto the opportunity to make an over-spectacular leap to save, then at the other end Iniesta slipped a pass into the area to Montoya but Mikel Balenziaga was in quickly to intervene. The only goal of the game came as a result of Athletic’s pressing. Neymar chested the ball to Iniesta who was immediately under pressure from two opponents. Ander Herrera robbed the ball and played it quickly to Iturraspe on the right and his cross reached Muniain who stabbed the ball home from six yards.
Barça had showed a good attitude until the goal but the reaction was very disappointing. Athletic nearly scored again after Muniain and Balenziaga turned Montoya inside out and Muniain’s cross reached Toquero who powered a header too close to Pinto who made an excellent reaction save.
Barça kept running but there was a lack of order as Athletic never allowed time to settle. Sergi Roberto came on in place of Xavi and near the end Pedro replaced Iniesta but there were few ideas. The closest Barça came to an equalizer came in the 88th minute but Pedro’s shot was deflected wide by Gurpegi. There was very little final push and the players seemed to lack belief in the equalizer. In the end Athletic deserved their first victory over Barça since 2006, for despite Barça’s efforts the home team showed the greater intensity over the 90 minutes.
The overall performance was not as disappointing as the Ajax game and the team certainly attempted to match Athletic’s tempo and work-rate at the start. However, there were too many individual mistakes and we seem to give the ball away much more quickly than in recent seasons. Our full backs were particularly mediocre though perhaps more worrying after tonight’s game is the form of Neymar who seems to have lost the magic he was showing earlier in the season. The biggest concern, however, was the lack of reaction after the goal. There seemed to be a lack of belief in our possibilities which is difficult to explain. I’ve spoken before about the need for more character, if we don’t start finding a bit more we may find our run of 53 consecutive weeks at the top of La Liga, which equals the previous record set by Real Madrid between 1986 and 1988, comes to an end sooner than we expect.
Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga (Albizua m82); Iturraspe, Mikel Rico (San Jose m88); Herrera, Muniain (Ibai m86), Susaeta; Toquero.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Montoya 5, Piqué 6, Mascherano 5.5, Adriano 5; Xavi 5.5 (Sergi Roberto m74, 6), Busquets 6.5, Iniesta 6.5 (Pedro m84, –); Alexis 6, Fabregas 6, Neymar 5.
Goals: m70 Muniain 1-0.
Yellow cards: m19 Rico, m54 Neymar, m57 Iturraspe, m57 Busquets, m70 Toquero, m73 Mascherano, m78 Adriano