Barça may have been outplayed and outfought at San Mames in the Spanish Supercopa nine days ago, but with the real business of La Liga in play, Luis Enrique’s team gave a much more solid performance and deservedly beat Athletic Club 0-1 thanks to Luis Suárez’s 54th minute volley.
In Athletic’s 4-0 victory in the Supercopa it was clear that Athletic’s high press was a big threat to Barça’s defence. In today’s encounter Barça’s back four showed a lot more composure in playing the ball out from the back and they were superbly assisted by the ability of both Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta to receive the ball under pressure and then to find a teammate.
For the first fifteen minutes it was Barça’s quick possession game versus a very energetic press from Athletic but as Barça kept the ball it was the Athletic players who were using up more energy in the chase. There was little danger for either goalkeeper at this stage but it still made for a fascinating duel.
Then in the 16th minute Dani Alves was injured after taking a kick from behind from Aritz Aduriz and Luis Enrique was forced to bring on Sergi Roberto in his place. The youngster fitted in well and immediately began to offer more attacking options with his spurts up the right side. In the 21st minute the ball appeared to have crossed the goalline as he crossed from near the corner flag, but play was allowed to continue and then Messi’s appeal for a penalty was ignored after Elustondo’s raised arm blocked the ball after the Argentinian’s chested control.
However, nine minutes later Messi would get his chance from the penalty spot after the match officials combined to make another double mistake. First Suárez appeared offside when Jordi Alba sent a long pass forward, Elustondo misjudged the ball allowing Suárez into the area but then the defender seemed to make a clean tackle for the ball but referee Carlos Del Cerro Grande considered it a foul and pointed to the spot. Messi sidefooted his penalty low and close to the post but his shot lacked power and Gorka Iraizoz leapt to his right to palm the ball away.
The penalty miss could have proved costly but Barça continued to look composed. In the 34th minute Sergi Roberto got forward again to cross for Suárez. The Uruguan’s swing made only minimal contact and Iraizoz dived to push the ball away and Rafinha who was following up on the left could only whip the ball back across the goalmouth with no Barça player close to converting. Barça patient play meant just one more chance before half-time but it came after a lovely build-up involving Iniesta and Messi. The Argentinian’s brilliant chip into the area found Suárez, but after turning, the striker’s shot hit Laporte’s legs.
Both sides continued in the same vein at the start of the second half with Barça continuing to dominate. Athletic suffered an injury to left-back Balenziaga in the 50th minute which forced Athletic coach Ernesto Valverde to bring on Boveda at right-back while switching De Marcos to the left side of defence. The changes in the Basque back-four may have had an effect as Barça finally broke the deadlock four minutes later. Rakitic played a long ball forward to the left wing, Alba had sprinted forward into space and he met the ball first time sending his cross directly to the unmarked Suárez who volleyed past Iraizoz from eight yards.
Barça looked more comfortable with the goal advantage and Athletic found it harder to keep up the energetic press. Sergi Roberto came close to adding a second with a thunderous shot from 20 yards that cannoned off the crossbar. However, Barça’s control of the game took a blow when the excellent Busquets went down injured after receiving another kick from the over-enthusiastic Aduriz. Luis Enrique’s only option was to move Mascherano forward into Busquets’ role and bring Bartra into an untried defence of Sergi Roberto-Bartra-Vermaelen-Alba.
Athletic sensed an opportunity and made a final effort to threaten Bravo’s goal. Susaeta shot well wide from 20 yards then in the 80th minute substitute Ibai Gomez lashed his shot wide after Barça failed to clear a cross from the right. Sandro came on for the disappointing Rafinha in the 82nd minute and as full time approached Messi began to take advantage of Athletic’s tiring legs. A spectacular 30-yard own-goal from Boveda was ruled out as Suárez was deemed offside from the Argentinian’s pass. Then we saw a run that only Messi could do, past three opponents including a nutmeg before firing his shot too close to Iraizoz. Athletic made one last push in injury time with Laporte firing a long distance effort towards goal. However, Bravo was well positioned to catch the shot and Barça held on to the first three hard-earned points of the season.
Athletic: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Elustondo, Laporte, Balenziaga (Boveda m50); Beñat, Mikel Rico (Gurpegi m63): Eraso, Sabin (Ibai Gomez m63), Susaeta; Aduriz.
Barça: Bravo 7; Alves 6 (Sergi Roberto m19, 7.5), Mascherano 7, Vermaelen 7.5, Alba 7.5; Rakitic 7.5, Busquets 8.5 (Bartra m68, 6.5), Iniesta 8; Messi 7, Suárez 7, Rafinha 5.5 (Sandro m82, 6)
Goal: m54 Suárez 0-1.
Yellow cards: m34 Elustondo, m35 Eraso, m44 Rakitic, m64 Vermaelen, m71 Ibai Gomez, m75 Suárez.