Barcelona suffered back-to-back defeats as a second-half goal from Iker Muniain saw them go down 1-0 to an impressive Athletic Bilbao side in their first visit to the new San Mames. While the loss to Ajax in midweek could be largely written off, with Barcelona already through to the Champions League knockout phase, this first league defeat of the season has greater ramifications.
The top of the Spanish Primera Division table has closed up considerably, with Atletico Madrid now only behind the Catalans on goal difference, while Real Madrid are just three points back. Missing a host of players, including, of course, Lionel Messi, Barcelona created precious little going forward. Much of the credit to that, though, must go to an Athletic side managed by Ernesto Valverde, a former Barcelona player and one of the men tipped to take the hot seat at the Camp Nou this summer before Gerardo Martino replaced Tito Vilanova.
Athletic worked tirelessly for the duration of the 90 minutes to outdo Barcelona at their own high-pressing game. From the off Athletic were pushing up and harrying Barcelona all over the pitch, disrupting their normal passing rhythm. While Barcelona had plenty of possession, it was Athletic that created the game’s best opportunities and they fully deserved a victory that takes them up to fourth place in La Liga.
At the heart of almost everything Athletic did well going forward was Markel Susaeta. The winger was giving Barcelona’s full-backs a torrid time and his deflected cross should have led to his side going in front just before the half-hour mark were it not for Muniain failing to make clean contact right in front of goal. Not long after, Susaeta led a quick break and this time from the left delivered a fine cross but Gaizka Toquero’s diving header went wide of the target.
Barcelona were struggling to make inroads with the lack of space afforded them. The absence of Messi was clearly felt, with Neymar being harried off the ball on a number of occasions and Alexis Sanchez cutting an anonymous figure. It was Neymar that came closest to putting the visitors in front, first curling over the bar after Sanchez’s turn and then after the break when he lost his balance and shot into the stands.
But, while not at their best, Barcelona will feel that they should have had the potentially pivotal advantage of extra man for the last 33 minutes of the contest. Neymar looked to be clean though for a clear goal-scoring opportunity when he was bundled down by Ander Iturraspe. Only a yellow card was forthcoming, however -- a decision that led to Fabregas entering the book for his understandable protests.
As well as Messi, the attacking threat of Dani Alves was also missing, While good defensively, his replacement Martin Montoya lacks the same quality in attacking areas as was shown when he failed to take advantage of Andres Iniesta’s wondrous scooped pass over the Athletic defense.
Instead, it was the Basque side that struck first when their pressing paid rich dividends. Ander Herrera won the ball back in Barcelona’s half and played it through to danger man Susaeta, who sent a teasing low center across the face of goal that was missed by Toquero but not by Muniain, who got in front of Montoya to turn the ball past Jose Manuel Pinto.
Athletic could have quickly doubled their advantage as Muniain turned provider with a perfect cross for Toquero but the striker’s header was too close to Pinto who parried the ball to safety.
A wave of Barcelona pressure would normally have been forthcoming in the final minutes, but there was no such anxiety for Athletic on this occasion and they held out for their biggest win yet at their new home.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.