Athletic Bilbao 0 Barcelona 0: Valverde's men held despite Messi's return to starting XI

By Sports Desk February 10, 2019

Lionel Messi's return to the starting line-up was not enough to prevent Barcelona drawing a third successive match across all competitions, as Athletic Bilbao held out for a 0-0 stalemate at San Mames in LaLiga.

Argentina superstar Messi was only named among the substitutes for Wednesday's 1-1 Copa del Rey draw against Real Madrid having struggled with a thigh injury and he looked a little off colour as Barca end the weekend just six points clear of Los Blancos in second.

Athletic edged an entertaining first half and went close on a couple of occasions, while Barca appeared to be missing the talents of Arthur in midfield – Arturo Vidal failing to impress in a similar role to the injured Brazilian, who faces a month out.

Ernesto Valverde's side had little luck creating clear-cut opportunities in the second half - albeit Nelson Semedo was contentiously denied a last-gasp penalty – and could have even have lost as Athletic, who had Oscar De Marcos sent off for a second bookable offence in injury-time, went close twice late on.

Barca struggled to cope during the early exchanges and had two lucky escapes. Yuri Berchiche drilled just wide of the bottom-right corner before Markel Susaeta's curling effort forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a wonderful acrobatic save.

The visitors gradually gained a foothold and went mightily close in the 26th minute, as Iago Herrerin beat Nelson Semedo – who was incorrectly pulled back for being offside at the end of the move – and nudged the ball to Messi, whose first-time effort from distance hit the crossbar.

Barca were convinced they should have had a penalty at the start of the second half when Luis Suarez's header appeared to strike the arm of Inigo Martinez, but nothing was given.

Athletic nearly took all of the points in the final 10 minutes, Inaki Williams heading wide from close range, before then seeing Ter Stegen produce a remarkable reaction save to thwart him from just 10 yards.

De Marcos was given his marching orders late on when handling the ball, and Barca were denied a penalty with the last action of the game – VAR failing to reward them despite Semedo appearing to be caught by Yeray Alvarez.

 

 

What does it mean? Barca blip coming at the wrong time

As Santiago Solari's Madrid – 3-1 victors over Atletico Madrid on Saturday – pick up the pace in LaLiga, cracks are starting to appear at Camp Nou. This may just be a brief blip, but Valverde needs his men to react quickly.

Alvarez in command at the back

Athletic had to contend with long periods under pressure in the second half, but Alvarez remained solid in defence, marshalling Luis Suarez particularly well. He was perhaps lucky to avoid conceding a late penalty for his tackle on Semedo, however.

Coutinho blends into the background

Even though he did not look entirely sharp, Messi was still seemingly expected to do all of the creating for Barca. Philippe Coutinho should be the one to take some of the burden off their talisman, but he offered very little spark, yet again.

What's next?

Barca return to Camp Nou on Saturday, hosting Real Valladolid. Athletic travel to Huesca two days later.

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    Ernesto Valverde said he has no preference over where and when Barcelona are confirmed as LaLiga champions.

    A 2-0 win at Deportivo Alaves moved Barca within three points of defending their title, but they will be crowned on Wednesday should nearest rivals Atletico Madrid lose at home to Valencia.

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    Barca would be able to celebrate clinching the title in front of their own fans should Atletico postpone what is increasingly inevitable, but Valverde has no preference over when his second successive title is confirmed.

    "The truth is that there are three final points [to make mathematically sure], but they are very important," Valverde told reporters. "Things have to be concretised and we have been chasing them for a long time.

    "Atletico are a competitor who show every day how they do it. We'll see. I do not see Atletico relaxing. We count on that we will need the three points.

    "What we want is to win because winning LaLiga is difficult and we will see when it can be. It leaves us on the verge of getting it, three points with four games to play.

    "Whatever it has to be, it will be. If, when we start the season, they ask me, any coach would have answered any time."

    Barca found it hard to break Alaves down initially, but after Alena's opener was created by Sergi Roberto a VAR-assisted penalty allowed Suarez to double their lead.

    "In the end they defended well, defended together," Valverde added. "We had a double chance at the beginning but we did not take advantage and it was a matter of patience. With the 0-1 they have already had to open up."

    Valverde brought on Messi at 2-0 and he denied the move was motivated by giving Messi the chance to score more goals in a bid for another individual award.

    "The idea was that he'd play because the result wasn't clear when it was goalless at half-time," he said. "The suggestion that it was about the Golden Shoe... well, we focus on winning.

    "It was time for him to get some rest today and to come out in the second half. It's good for players to stay involved and active.

    "You can't put them away in a case and then just bring them out for one match."

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