Barça had to work very hard for victory over Athletic Club at Camp Nou this afternoon but in the end Neymar Jr, who had again been left out of Luis Enrique’s initial starting XI, came on to grab two late goals to earn a desrved 2-0 win which keeps Barça top of La Liga with maximum points from three games.
The Barça coach once more showed faith in Munir El-Haddadi who lined up in attack with Leo Messi and Pedro. Claudio Bravo continued in goal despite Ter Stegen now being fit, Mascherano was preferred over Piqué in central defence and Martin Montoya came in for Dani Alves who had to pull out of the game with a slight knee problem. Rakitic and Iniesta were given the nod to start in midfield with Sergio Busquets.
The game began at a tremendous pace with Athletic coming close to a goal after 60 seconds. The Basques attacked Montoya’s position with Beñat finding Balenziaga who advanced into the area and unleashed a powerful shot that Bravo did well to save right-handed diving to his left. The response was quick from Barça with Mascherano delivering a long low pass forward to Munir who cut in from the right but sent his shot disappointingly wide. Then on five minutes a quick move involving Pedro, Rakitic, Messi and Munir opened space for the overlapping Montoya whose low cross found Pedro arriving at the near post but Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz stuck out his left leg to block the Canarian’s sidefooted shot.
The start set the pace for an intense contest which was even more impressive considering the heat and humidity guaranteed by the 4 pm kick-off time. Barça’s high energy press forced the Basques back but with the impressive Laporte in the middle of Athletic’s defence there were few shooting opportunities. Barça looked for long passes to beat Athletic’s high defensive line but with little luck, and Barça didn’t create another scoring opportunity until the 19th minute when Messi chipped a delightful ball over the defence for Munir to run on to but after a good first touch the youngster blazed his shot over.
At this point there was little seen in attack from Athletic though Aduriz asked for a penalty after a tussle in the area with Mascherano. Then in the 28th minute another move up Athletic’s left gave Iturraspe the chance to dribble into the area but his side-foot shot lacked power and Bravo saved comfortably low to his left. Soon after, Aduriz received the first yellow card of the game after catching Mascherano with a kick in the face which would eventually force the Argentinian to come off at half time.
If Athletic might have had a penalty Barça might have had two for two pushes on Munir in the space of five minutes. First Iraizoz shoved the youngster in the back when he had positioned himself in front of the keeper to compete for a ball dropping into the area, then in the 38th minute Gurpegi appeared to push the Barça forward as he shielded the ball on the left of the area. In between the two appeals Rakitic, who had a relatively quiet game, sent in a cross that Messi could only glance wide with his header.
As half time approached Barça upped the tempo. Messi and Munir combined brilliantly through the middle but Messi couldn’t break free from Laporte who made a vital block. Mathieu, who had an impressive game at the back, popped up on the left and his cross reached Rakitic on the right and he sent a low drive that was well stopped by Iraizoz. Then Iniesta sent Messi into the right-hand side of the area and the Argentinian’s cross found Munir at the near post but Iraizoz was out quickly to make another good block.
Piqué came on for Mascherano for the second half but if there was a notable change to Barça’s game it was seen in the more attacking disposition of Jordi Alba. Munir continued to cause Athletic problems with his movement but his finishing was disappointing all night. The one time he did get the ball in the net was after Messi found Alba storming forward but he was deemed to be offside when the Barça left-back sent in the cross. The replay showed Munir’s feet were well onside but he was leaning forward in anticipation and his body may have put him just in front of the last defender. Two minutes later Messi again timed his pass perfectly for Alba’s dash forward, this time Alba cut inside to shoot right-footed and Iraizoz made an excellent low save as the shot went straight through Gurpegi’s legs.
Barça kept pushing and Messi again found the route to send Alba forward, sprinting past De Marcos to chip a cross to the near post but Munir’s header from seven yards went straight at Iraizoz. It was the last action from the young striker as Luis Enrique replaced him with Neymar in the 63rd minute. Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde took the opportunity to make two changes, bringing on Unai Gomez and Ibai in place of Beñat and Susaeta.
Athletic showed they could still cause Barça problems but after Aduriz held off Mathieu his shot went straight at Bravo. However, with Neymar looking tuned-in Barça began to create more frequent chances at the other end. Neymar’s first effort went wide of the far post, then soon after, he couldn’t finish Iniesta’s cross from the left and then instead of shooting he tried to find Messi but Mikel Rico arrived just in time to clear. Then in the 72nd minute an electric move involving Messi and Iniesta ended with Neymar’s shot hitting Messi who had strayed offside.
It was wave after wave of Barça attacks but time was running out. Athletic were looking for their first point at Camp Nou since the 2003/04 season and in the 76th minute Camp Nou held its breath when Muniain left Piqué spinning the wrong way and only a last ditch lunge from Mathieu denied the Basque forward a clear chance.
Twelve minutes remaining and Luis Enrique called for his final substitute, Sandro who scored Barça’s late winner at Villarreal, coming on in place of Pedro. Sandro’s introduction did not have such a direct effect as two weeks ago but within a minute of the substitution Barça were ahead. Laporte had been excellent at the back but for once he gave a poor ball directly to Busquets in the centre circle. Busquets showed his speed of thought to send the ball quickly forward to Messi who turned and pushed a perfectly weighted pass to the left for Neymar who slipped his shot coolly inside the far post.
The goal killed off Athletic. Coach Ernesto Valverde sent on new striker Viguera in place of midfielder Mikel Rico but it was a desperate move. Barça took advantage of the space to grab a second and again it was the Busquets-Messi-Neymar connection that did the job. Busquets gave the ball to Messi who’d drifted to the right and the Argentinian span away to begin a brilliant run from the right wing which ended on the edge of the goal area when he pulled the ball back to the penalty spot to Neymar who again picked his spot inside the post with class.
Barça: Bravo 7; Montoya 6, Mascherano 6.5 (Piqué h/t, 6), Mathieu 7.5, Alba 7.5; Rakitic 6.5, Busquets 6.5, Iniesta 7; Pedro 7 (Sandro m78, 6), Messi 8, Munir 7 (Neymar m63, 8)
Athletic: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe, Mikel Rico (Viguera m82); Susaeta (Ibai m63), Beñat (Unai Gomez m63), Muniain; Aduriz.
Goals: m79 Neymar 1-0, m84 Neymar 2-0.
Yellow cards: m30 Aduriz, m62 Busquets.