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FC Barcelona are always being heralded for their dazzling attacking football, but sometimes it’s good old-fashioned defending (and goalkeeping!) that wins games. And tonight was one of those nights.
For long periods on Saturday evening, it was Athletic Club that were piling on the pressure and Barça that were on the back foot. But the Catalans have now only conceded three goals in ten league games, and San Mamés got to see why.
Football is about taking your chances. And tonight FCB did just that. In an uncharacteristically quiet game for the Barça frontline, Leo Messi and Paulinho were there when called upon and three more points were added to Ernesto Valverde’s impressive collection.
Leo’s the lion
The game took a quarter of an hour so to spring to life, but when it did the action starting flowing thick and fast.
The lightning quick Inaki Williams was causing Barça all kinds of trouble, and although Ter Stegen did well, Artiz Aduriz really should have nudged the home side ahead when he found himself solo against the German keeper.
But that had nothing on the extraordinary miss by Messi on 21 minutes. A series of speedy one-touch passes off Luis Suárez and Paulinho finished with the Argentinian jinking his way into position.
But what should have been a perfect goal ended with a simple tap-in hitting the post. At least it was proof that Messi is just a human being like the rest of us!
The greatest player of all time rarely makes mistakes, but when he does, he soon makes up for them. And he did just that by scoring a fabulous opener after 36 minutes. The classic ball out to Jordi Alba on the left wing. The classic ball back to the FCB number 10.
Bang. Goal. One-nil.
Moments later, Paulinho could have, maybe should have, made it two, but for the 13th time this Liga season, a Barça player hit the woodwork.
Athletic push hard
Speaking of woodwork, that’s where the best of the post-interval chances ended up, Raúl García’s header. This game was by no means over. As the half progressed almost all the meaningful action had been in Barça’s half of the pitch.
But Athletic were unable to capitalise. They partly had themselves to blame for not taking their chances. But Barça never lost their shape at the back and Ter Stegen produced two or three clinical saves to keep the lead intact, the one that denied Aduriz at point-blank range being especially providential.
Unai Núñez is also worthy of mention. Whenever Barça did get through, the Athletic centre back always seemed to be in the right place to cut out the danger.
San Mamés never stopped believing. The game wasn’t truly over until the very last minute.
It was then that Suárez got on the end of a Messi-led counter attack, and although the Uruguayan was unable to score, Kepa Arrizabalaga could only parry the ball into Paulinho’s path.
And the Brazilian slipped it home.
Barça fans could come out from behind the sofa. It was all over. Those were three very hard earned points in the Basque capital.
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