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Messi, Iniesta i Alves, contra l'Athletic Club. FOTO: MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB.

Barça v Athletic Bilbao was as good a game as people had expected, with both teams showing why they are getting so much praise of late. These are two sides that like to keep possession of the ball, and in that respect it was Barça that came out tops – something which clearly unsettled their Basque visitors. The home side had all the chances in the first half, and also the only goal, an absolute beauty from Iniesta. Both sides were clearly treating the game with the utmost intensity, and we were also treated to a fascinating tactical battle between two of the most respected coaches in the competition. Messi, on an evening on which he received a special tribute for becoming the highest goalscorer in FCB history, settled the result in the second half from the penalty spot. It was a hard-fought victory for the Catalans, and the three points serve to keep their league title hopes very much alive.

Catalan initiative

Both sides had clearly made modifications to their starting elevens with European commitments in mind, but Barça were firing on all cylinders regardless. The Athletic players were clearly stunned by such an ambitious opening. After just five minutes Piqué had a shot turned wide and two minutes later Thiago had a goal disallowed for offside. Bilbao’s plan to use the wings just didn’t seem to be working for them, and neither could they find a way to work the ball forwards out of defence. Try as they could to take the initiative, they were clearly struggling to hold onto possession for any sizeable period of time. The game was Barça’s for the taking.

Iniesta strikes

Just when the pace seemed to be slowing, the 88,207 strong crowd started chanting the name of “Abidal! Abidal!” in honour of the minute that coincided with the Frenchman’s shirt number. That seemed to be the inspiration the Barcelona players needed. Messi almost surprised Bilbao keeper Gorka with a quickly taken free kick from far out, and from the ensuing corner, Aurtenetxe cleared a Piqué effort off the goal line. It was all Barça, but although they couldn’t get the ball, the visitors were exceptionally disciplined at the back. Messi was subjected to some especially tight marking, and as a result, Barça were failing to find their usual magic over the last few metres.

But the Basque wall was finally broken down in the 40th minute. Alexis won the ball in midfield and threaded it forwards to Messi. The Argentinian supplied a quick assist to Iniesta, who came in from behind to slam the ball home with verve. 1-0. And Barça had chances to extend that lead before the break, with Gorka twice being called upon to deal with angled shots from Messi and Adriano. A delightful 45 minutes of football ended with the Catalans ahead by a solitary goal.

Messi makes no mistake

Marcelo Bielsa sought to change the pattern in the second half by sending on two of his prize assets, Ander and Muniain, while striker Llorente would be the third substitute. That helped Athletic to start creating more danger but Barça managed to contain everything that was thrown their way, with Piqué and Mascherano being particularly effective in limiting the potential damage. Meanwhile, Tello was impressing in up front. It was he who tested Gorka to the limit with a brilliantly swerved shot, and it was also he who was brought down for a penalty that was coolly converted by Leo Messi in the 57th minute.

Holding on

Barça held onto their lead the way they know best – by keeping the ball away from their opponents. And also by not letting off in attack. In the 67th minute, Gorka came to his team’s rescue yet again, this time to save an exquisite effort from Iniesta, who was replaced shortly after by Xavi. Keita also came on as Guardiola sought to make sure Bilbao didn’t spring any nasty late surprises. Something they almost did through Muniain, but Piqué was there just in time. That was the start of a late flurry from the visitors, but it was ultimately in vain, and Barça very nearly made it three when Keita’s shot hit the crossbar. The three points mean that the Catalans stay within six points of the league leaders, and were also a massive confidence boost ahead of the crunch game with Milan on Tuesday night.

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