Lionel Messi was short of fitness and Barcelona lacked spark as a goalless draw away to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday offered fresh hope to their rivals in the title race. A thigh injury had limited Messi to 27 minutes against Real Madrid on Wednesday and while he played the full match at San Mames, Barca’s assistant coach Jon Aspiazu had admitted before kick-off he was not yet 100 per cent. Barcelona’s German goaltender Marc-Andre Ter Stegen prevented his team from going down to defeat with two splendid saves of shots by Athletic Club of Bilbao’s Markel Susaeta and Iñaki Williams, although the match ended in a scoreless draw.
With the draw, Ernesto Valverde’s squad thus dropped two points in the La Liga standings relative to Real Madrid, which is now behind Barca by only six points, but widened its lead to seven over Atletico Madrid, which slipped into third place. That was Real’s fifth league victory on the bounce and just as they have gained momentum, Barca appear to be losing theirs, at a crucial juncture, with more stern tests to come.
After Real Valladolid at home next weekend, Ernesto Valverde’s side travel to Lyon in the Champions League and Sevilla in the league. They then face two Clasicos in four days, one in the Copa del Rey, and both at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Athletic Bilbao, coached by Gaizka Garitano, meanwhile, remains in the fight to escape relegation after moving four points above the threshold over the past several weeks.
Messi managed to take the pitch, thus setting to rest the prime speculation prior to the road match, and Balenziaga also played, although Muniain – one of the five changes Garitano made after Anoeta, the team’s only league defeat – did not come in until the second half, replacing Susaeta.
Athletic was more intense at the start and also more dangerous throughout, but Ter Stegen gave the best performance for Barca during the first half, during which the Bilbao team had three good scoring chances, all of which he stymied.
The first, the best of the lot, was a powerful shot by team captain Susaeta, who played his 501st match on Sunday, but Ter Stegen made a catlike move to deflect it.
The next two shots on goal came from Raul Garcia and Sergi Roberto, with the alert Ter Stegen in the right place at the right moment to either capture or deflect the shots.
Yuri also took a couple of decent shots, without success, during the first half.
Meanwhile, Barca hunted for a combination that could bear fruit, but, despite the efforts of Suarez, Messi and others, nothing seemed to gel for the league leaders.
The second half kicked off very differently with the home squad under siege the entire time and Barca nosing around for a winning goal. Barca held the ball almost the entire half, with Messi getting more and more into the mix and Athletic seemingly in more and more agony.
But it was all for nought, as Valverde’s boys just could not seem to fashion a winning scenario near their rivals’ net.
Athletic’s De Marcos was booted in the 91st minute on a second yellow card, but it didn’t matter and the 23rd-week match, played before some 47,600 fans, ended without much excitement, although one can imagine that the Catalans were breathing sighs of relief – having avoided the loss – as they headed to the locker room.
(With Agency Inputs)