Barça cut Real Madrid’s lead at the top of La Liga to just one point with a magnificent 2-5 win over Athletic Club at the new San Mames tonight. Leo Messi led the way by opening the scoring and then playing a part in each of Barça’s other four goals, though the victory should be remembered as a solid team performance in a frenetic action-packed contest.
Luis Enrique made three changes to the team that beat Villarreal last Sunday with Rakitic and Xavi replacing Rafinha and Iniesta in midfield and Jeremy Mathieu coming in for Javier Mascherano at the back. Right from the start Athletic tried to rush Barça with a high press which caused two or three mis-placed passes as Barça tried to settle. The first chance fell to Aduriz from a corner but he couldn’t keep his shot down.
Athletic’s tactics caused Barça to play the long ball towards Suarez with little luck in his early battles with Athletic’s central defenders. However, in the 14th minute the Uruguayan won a foul off Etxeita 25 yards out and a bit right of centre. Messi took the kick and saw his shot deflect off Aymeric Laporte in the wall, Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz couldn’t change direction quickly enough and despite getting a hand to the ball he couldn’t prevent it rolling across the line.
Athletic tried to hit back with Muniain sending in a dangerous cross from the left, Aduriz stabbed at the ball and Bravo needed to make an excellent save by the post. Then within a minute Neymar’s flick sent Messi in on the left and when the Argentinian floated over a cross Suarez seemed sure to score but Iraizoz somehow got a hand to the Uruguayan’s header and forced it over the bar.
The action was non-stop with Xavi sending a diving header over the bar and then Susaeta with a 25-yard drive forcing another good save from Bravo. However, the talent in Barça’s attack always looked likely to prove determinant. In the 26th minute Neymar headed a Barça clearance inside to Suarez who sent a pass into the area for Messi to chase, Messi checked and played the ball back to Suarez who beat Iraizoz with a low shot from 20 yards.
Barça might have had a third soon after when Messi played Xavi into the area and the veteran midfielder dribbled outside Iraizoz, but Xavi’s cross was met by Neymar’s knee and the ball was saved on the line by Laporte with his face, Suarez fired back the rebound but Iraizoz saved with his foot. Athletic then came as close as they would in the first half when Aduriz outjumped Mathieu but sent his header against the base of the post.
Athletic could not maintain such an energetic press and Barça began to string long series of passes together which will only have helped to tire the home team more. Near the end of the half Neymar was sent through only to be denied by a good intervention from Laporte and Messi’s goalbound shot was deflected out for a corner. Despite the moments of danger from Athletic Barça were well worth the two-goal lead at the break.
Athletic knew the only way back was to continue trying to press high, and with recharged batteries they again came out strongly after the restart. Unai volleyed wide at the far post and Piqué reduced his chances for increasing his family by getting his nuts in the way of a powerful drive from Aduriz. Barça still looked in control but then in the 59th Messi got caught in possession and two quick passes sent Aduriz in for shot, Bravo dived to save again but could do nothing to prevent Mikel Rico firing home the rebound.
For their tremendous physical effort Athletic deserved the goal but it only served to reawaken Barça who responded in devastating fashion. Three minutes later Rakitic advanced through the inside-right position before finding Suarez to his right, the Uruguayan’s floated cross was met by Messi’s volley at the far post and De Marcos couldn’t get out of the way and deflected the ball into his own goal. Just two more minutes later Messi combined with Rakitic on the right before charging towards the area, the Argentinian played a pass to his left, Xavi let the ball run, and Neymar swept the ball past Iraizoz from fifteen yards.
It wasn’t over yet. Athletic hit straight back after Busquets missed his tackle allowing Muniain the time to slip a pass behind Mathieu, Aduriz ran on to it and fired a low angled shot that Bravo let slip past him at the near post. However, the Basques had little more to give after such an effort and when Etxeita received a straight red card for sticking his studs in Suarez’s knee it was game over.
Barça had chances to score even more but Neymar was guilty of over-elaboration in his finishing. It was left to substitute Pedro to complete the scoring after an incredible dribble from Messi from right to left and then left to right across the edge of the Athletic penalty area. Waiting for his moment Messi slipped the pass through to Busquets who centred to give Pedro a simple finish.
Athletic: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Etxeita, Laporte, Balenziaga (Aurtenetxe m52); Mikel Rico, San Jose; Susaeta (Beñat m69), Unai Lopez, Muniain (Gurpegi m78); Aduriz.
Barça: Bravo 7; Alves 7 (Adriano m69, 7), Piqué 7.5, Mathieu 6.5, Alba 7; Rakitic 7, Busquets 7.5, Xavi 7.5 (Rafinha m74, 6.5); Messi 8.5, Suarez 7.5 (Pedro m80, 7.5), Neymar 7.
Goals: m15 Messi 0-1, m26 Suarez 0-2, m59 Rico 1-2, m62 De Marcos (o.g) 1-3, m64 Neymar 1-4, m66 Aduriz 2-4, m86 Pedro 2-5.
Yellow cards: m40 Balenziaga, m45 Alves, m69 Unai Lopez, m91 Gurpegi.
Red card: m75 Etxeita.