A stunning cameo from substitute Lionel Messi wasn’t enough to give Barcelona victory as Athletic Bilbao scored a 90th minute equalizer to earn a 2-2 result at San Mames.
Markel Susata’s 27th-minute goal had put struggling Bilbao in front, but with just over 30 minutes remaining Messi made his entrance and instantly looked fitter than he has since returning from a hamstring injury suffered over three weeks ago.
Having been badly off the pace as Barcelona were handed a 4-0 drubbing by Bayern Munich in midweek, the Argentinean was back to his breathtaking best as he inspired his side toward a seeming victory. A majestic 44th league goal of the season arrived in the 67th minute and two minutes later he assisted Alexis Sanchez to make it 2-1.
Yet, defeat would have been harsh on Athletic and they stunned Barcelona with an equalizer from Ander Herrera in the final minute. A win for the visitors would have meant a chance to wrap up the championship had second-placed Real Madrid also lost later in the day.
Despite that incentive, it had been Athletic, which came into the match languishing in 14th place in the league and on a run of just one point from three games, that had started the brighter in the last meeting between these sides at San Mames.
It was Barcelona, though, that came closest to scoring early on when Sanchez struck the post with a shot from the edge of the area.
Instead, just before the half-hour mark, Athletic were rewarded for their bright start with the opening goal. Aritz Arduriz dropped his shoulder to beat Gerard Pique down the left and whipped in a dangerous low cross that was just begging to be turned into the net and Susaeta duly obliged.
That’s how things stayed until the match was turned on its head when Messi replaced Xavi in the 59th minute.
He quickly demonstrated the trademark turn of pace that was so visibly missing from his armory in Munich. On the pitch for less than 10 minutes, Messi received the ball outside the box and twisted and turned with scintillating control of the ball in tight spaces to beat three men before getting the ball perfectly onto his left foot to guide a shot beyond Gorka Iraizoz and into the bottom corner.
And Barcelona were soon in front. Dani Alves whipped in a cross from the right that Messi headed forward for Sanchez, who turned excellently and fired into the net to seemingly send Barcelona on the way to three points.
But in the final minute of regulation time Barcelona’s defensive vulnerability reared its head once more.
The visitors failed to clear a cross in the box as two defenders went to head away the ball and it fell to Ander Herrera who struck a crisp volley past Victor Valdes.