Barcelona extended their unbeaten run to start the season with a hard-fought, yet unimpressive win at the always difficult San Mames. The Catalans were led by a first half goal by Lionel Messi and an excellent performance by Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Late in the game Paulinho added a goal to secure the three points.
Ernesto Valverde once again surprised many with his starting eleven, including in it the likes of Sergi Roberto at right back and Andre Gomes in a midfielder/winger role. Jordi Alba returned from injury and Paulinho replaced the injured Andres Iniesta.
Barcelona started brightly, allowing the hosts very little, while coping excellently with Athletic’s high press. The constant movement from Barcelona’s players allowed a surprising amount of space in attack on numerous occasions, however space in front of goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga was hard to come by. Still, Barcelona had a good chance to open the scoring just six minutes in as Unai Nunez’s clearance found Lionel Messi 25 yards out, but the Argentine’s powerful drive was handled by Kepa.
After the early dominance in possession from Barcelona, Athletic started to show life in attack, but the Barcelona defense was up to the task early. The hosts had a penalty claim waved off in the 14th minute after a lovely run by Inigo Lekue down the left side before the ball hit Samuel Umtiti in the elbow, but due to the fact the arm was completely tucked to the body, the referee correctly didn’t point to the spot.
But the hosts were clearly gaining momentum and they should’ve taken the lead just before the 20 minute mark when they had three golden opportunities. First, Inaki Williams sent a cross from the right side to Aritz Aduriz who easily beat Gerard Pique to the header, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen made the diving save. Then, a lovely combo from a long range free kick sprung Williams again, but his low goalmouth cross was somehow cleared away by the Barcelona defense. Moments later, the hosts had their best chance of the game, with Aduriz going one-on-one on ter Stegen, but the German didn’t panic. He waited for Aduriz to commit to the low shot and made a brilliant diving save to keep the game scoreless.
Two minutes later, in the 21st minute, Barcelona missed a chance they should’ve converted. Against the run of play, Barcelona combined brilliantly in midfield, with crucial passes from Paulinho and Luis Suarez springing Messi behind the defense. A goal was seemingly the only option for the Argentine, but after skipping to the right of the goalkeeper, Messi caromed the ball off the post.
The frantic pace of missing glorious chances slowed down considerably, as both defenses tightened their ranks and didn’t allow much for about 10 minutes. Barcelona took a couple long range shots that were right at Kepa or wide of goal, courtesy of Ivan Rakitić, Paulinho and Suarez, while Athletic didn’t threaten at all.
Barcelona were regaining control of the game after the three minutes break-down that should’ve resulted in at least one goal, and the Catalans were rewarded in the 38th minute. Alba was played through deep on the left wing, sending a low ball into the danger area just before it crossed the goal-line. On the receiving end was Messi who this time made no mistake, slotting the ball into the back of the net for the lead.
The Catalans could’ve doubled their lead just two minutes later. Rakitić and Messi were combining excellently on the right wing, before Messi received the ball inside the area, playing a perfect pass to the wide open Paulinho who first-timed it on goal, but bouncing the ball off the crossbar. Just moments later, Suarez had a great chance from a free kick just outside of the area, but the ball was excellently blocked.
Before the break, Athletic had one last chance to change the score before the halftime whistle from a corner kick, but they couldn’t take it. With mere second added on, referee whistled for halftime, ending a thrilling first half of football.
The hosts came storming out of the gate, looking to catch Barcelona flat-footed, quickly winning a corner kick, but the defense cleared the cross. A long range free kick moments later was also easily cleared. But Athletic’s early press wouldn’t let up so easily and the Barcelona defense was tested a couple more times.
Barcelona also launched a promising counter attack early, with Messi springing Gomes, but for some reason the Portuguese international didn’t get a shot off. But the opening of the second half was almost completely about Athletic, who came very close to tying the game up in the 53rd minute. An excellent cross was floated in from the corner kick to Raul Garcia who headed on goal, but he was denied by the crossbar.
Barcelona struggled mightily in the second half, and it wasn’t solely due to Athletic’s better play. Barcelona’s passes were off target and there were too many turnovers on the ball. Around the one-hour mark the Catalans started playing something resembling football again and they quickly created a decent chance, with Messi finding Gomes, but he was denied by a diving Nunez. Minutes later, in an eerily similar play, Nunez made another diving block to prevent a dangerous shot, this time on Suarez.
But Athletic continued to be the better team and they continued their search for the equalizer, and their first substitution in the 68th minute signaled an even more attacking formation, with creator Benat taking the place of holding midfield Mikel San Jose. The hosts seemed hungrier on the pitch. 50-50 balls were more often than not won by Athletic players while Barcelona often seemed unsure about what to do with the ball – something that made Valverde very unhappy on the bench.
In the 78th minute, Athletic tested ter Stegen again. Aduriz was allowed plenty of space on Athletic’s left wing, but his plan of sneaking the ball inside the near post was thwarted by ter Stegen. With time winding down Athletic’s press intensified but Barcelona were hanging on. Valverde made his first, and only, substitution in the 83rd minute. Nelson Semedo took Gomes’s place, resulting in Roberto taking his position higher up the pitch.
Two minutes later, ter Stegen made another brilliant save, again on Aduriz. The tall striker was somehow left wide open on a corner kick and he glanced a perfectly placed header aimed just inside the near post, but ter Stegen kept the ball from crossing the line.
After Messi sailed a free kick over the crossbar in the 90th minute, three minutes were added on. Athletic were preparing for one last final push, but a turnover in midfield sprung Barcelona on a three-on-two counter attack. Messi passed the ball to Suarez on his left and the Uruguayan send a good shot on goal, but Kepa made a strong save. The rebound, however, fell right to the waiting feet of Paulinho who pushed the ball into the empty net to decide the game.
With the win Barcelona extended their La Liga lead over Valencia back to four point. The Catalans will be in action again in just three days when they travel to Greece to take on Olympiacos.