Barça’s slim title chances are still alive after coming from a goal behind to beat Athletic Club at Camp Nou tonight. When Aritz Aduriz fired the Basques into the lead early in the second half it looked like Barça’s season could be dead and buried but the team showed great character and goals from Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Messi turned the game round and helped lift the gloom in the stadium.
If there was a protest from the fans for recent results it was seen in the low attendance of 57,090. Those who attended were pretty quiet at the beginning with only a few whistles and a handful of handkerchiefs. There were rumblings from the crowd when the ball was passed back to Pinto but it was Cesc Fabregas who received the loudest whistles when he was brought on as a substitute in the second half with Barça a goal down.
Pinto’s footwork had Barça on the defensive early on as Athletic pressed aggressively and Aduriz had the first shot on target for the visitors in the ninth minute. However, with the Basques playing so high Barça began to find passes behind their defence, and in the 13th minute Alexis found Messi who slipped the ball through to Pedro who should have done better than shooting straight at Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz. A minute later the roles were reversed with Pedro playing in Messi but Laporte did enough to put the Argentinian off his shot and Iraizoz saved again.
Messi was still relatively quiet but he showed more spark when he was involved. His undoubted class was demonstrated in the 17th minute by a brilliant control to kill a skied clearance and take him past Balenziaga in one movement before chipping a pass out to Adriano. Barça were playing well in spells but there was little control from the midfield which was often by-passed, fortunately Alexis and Pedro were working hard and looking lively with support going forward from the full-backs. Alves put in a dangerous low cross that was cleared for a corner, Adriano cut inside for a deflected shot wide, and from another corner Alexis headed the ball into Bartra’s path four yards out but the defender couldn’t control the bouncing ball.
Athletic still threatened with flurries forward and in the 30th minute Aduriz met a right-wing cross was a stunning overhead kick from near the penalty spot that crashed against post, Pinto was rooted to the spot by the shot but he managed to react well to stick up his left hand to block Susaeta’s rebound.
Barça responded with a dash up the left from Pedro and when his cross came in Alexis arrived at the far post, but from just 6 yards the Chilean hit the ball into the ground in an attempt to keep the ball down and saw it bounce up and off the crossbar. The game was open but it was Barça who again threatened with two chances in a minute near the end of the half, first Adriano forced the ball through for Alexis to drive a shot from 15 yards but Iraizoz dived to the right to save, then Messi ducked to allow Adriano’s cross to reach Pedro but Iraizoz managed to stick out a foot to stop the Canarian’s low shot.
The jury was still out with the score at 0-0 at half-time. Barça had created more chances but the finishing had been disappointing and the team had never looked completely in control of the game. The second half began with Messi blasting a free-kick well off target but potential catastrophe arrived in the 50th minute when Bartra, who had an otherwise very solid game, was robbed by Muniain, and Aduriz ran on to fire low past Pinto.
This time a few dozen handkerchiefs came out and some inevitable whistling. However, the vast majority stayed silent, perhaps in shock. The team was also looking groggy and when Susaeta had the ball in the Barça net again four minutes later it looked on the point of collapse but the linesman ruled out the goal for a clear offside and Barça were still in it.
The reaction began with possibly the first good connection between Iniesta, Messi and Xavi setting up Pedro on the left but Iraizoz made another fine stop with his feet. Then in the 60th minute Iniesta found Alexis who threaded the ball through to give Messi a glorious chance: only Iraizoz stood in his way but the Argentinian pulled his shot wide of the far post.
Frustration began to creep in and in the next ten minutes the best effort was an Adriano volley that was blocked. Martino made his first substitution in the 70th minute bringing on Fabregas in place of Xavi and Camp Nou reacted with the loudest whistles of the night as the ex-Arsenal man entered the pitch. It was hugely unfair for Fabregas to bear the brunt of the fans’ dissatisfaction. It’s true his form has been poor recently but he doesn’t pick the team and earlier in the season he had some excellent performances which should not be forgotten.
Fabregas had little involvement in either of the goals but within four minutes of coming on Barça were in front. The equalizer came after a brilliant run from Alves who first turned away from two opponents near the touchline before slipping past Mikel Rico and pulling the ball back for Alexis who whipped the ball in for Pedro to finish from four yards. Two minutes later De Marcos was booked for a foul on Messi just outside the area. Messi hit the free-kick low and hard and beat Iraizoz by the post the goalkeeper was defending for his 26th league goal of the season.
Barça’s determination to hold on to the lead was personified by Alves’s charge forward to press Iraizoz, just a shame the Brazilian fouled the keeper after he slipped. Pedro, Alexis and Mascherano also deserve credit for the spirit they showed, and it was a great shame when Mascherano fired narrowly over after a 50-yard surge forward.
Tello came on near the end and should have done better after being sent though by Song, but he checked in an attempt to find the pass to Messi and lost out to San Jose. Athletic kept searching for an equalizer and their best chance came as the game entered injury time when the ball came to Rico just eight yards out but Mascherano was alert to make a magnificent block. How the mood might have changed if Rico had scored, but Barça held on for a deserved victory, the public went home happy (at least for tonight), and with four games to play there is still a glimmer of hope for a final twist in our favour in this topsy-turvy season.
Barça: Pinto 6; Alves 6.5, Bartra 7, Mascherano 7, Adriano 6; Xavi 6.5 (Fabregas m70, 6), Song 6, Iniesta 6.5; Alexis 8 (Tello m86, 6), Messi 7, Pedro 7.5.
Athletic: Iraizoz; De Marcos, San José, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe (Beñat m84), Moran (Mikel Rico m64); Susaeta (Toquero m85), Herrera, Muniain; Aduriz.
Goals: m50 Aduriz 0-1, m70 Pedro 1-1, m74 Messi 2-1.
Yellow cards: m6 Iturraspe, m21 Bartra, m72 Herrera, m74 De Marcos, m79 Pedro.