Magical Lionel Messi Can't Save Barcelona from UCL Hangover in Bilbao
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Barcelona boss Tito Vilanova will have much to ponder over the coming days after a lucklustre performance against Athletic Bilbao from La Liga's champions-elect.
Following their 100th and final visit to San Mames, Lionel Messi and La Blaugrana will head back to Catalonia with a bitter taste in their mouths, after a last-minute strike from Ander Herrera saw them held to a 2-2 draw by Athletic Bilbao Saturday.
Yet, if it wasn't for the dazzling brilliance of their Argentine talisman, this could've been much worse—which is in itself a worry for the management team.
There was little wrong with Vilanova's formation and team selection, but in the driving rain, even the more cultured players on show started awkwardly with a number of simple passes going astray or to the opposition.
Barcelona—despite knowing a win at "La Catedral" and a Real Madrid defeat at cross-town rivals Atletico would see them crowned La Liga champions—were impotent as an attacking force in the early stages.
It's a struggle to comprehend such moribund process at this stage of the season. With a return match against the German champions Bayern Munich also on the horizon, the lack of desire from Barcelona was disappointing to say the least.
Eric Abidal will be spared my wrath. The super-human Frenchman was calmness personified once again for Barca, and although he was withdrawn at halftime to be replaced by Adriano, he had already recorded some impressive looking stats, completing 84 percent of his passes.
Given his efficiency and the club's well-documented defensive woes, he must be considered for a starting berth on Wednesday.
The effervescent Dani Alves and Alex Song aside, there was little desire and passion in evidence here, certainly until the introduction of Messi later in the proceedings.
Song was imperious in the holding role usually the domain of the injured Sergio Busquets. Indeed, the Cameroonian was the main reason that Bilbao's forward line was not more successful playing through the middle and his work rate is clear for all to see here:
Alexis Sanchez produced his usual industry and he deserved a goal when his shot cannoned back off the foot of the post to safety.
It was indicative of his luck this season—a season that had promised much for the Chilean but which ultimately has been littered with a crisis of confidence that has been all too obvious during this campaign.
By his own standards, Bilbao's Iker Muniain has also suffered a disappointing few months, but he worked the channels well for the hosts dovetailing nicely with Susaeta amongst others.
It was the latter who sent the crowd into rapture as he got on the end of Aduriz's wonderful low cross on 26 minutes to put them ahead in the match, but once again fingers will be pointing at the leaden-footed Gerard Pique.
I highlighted recently the shortcomings of one of La Masia's greatest alumnus. And not only was he found wanting again as Aduriz drifted past him with ease, he also allowed Ander Hererra to climb in front of him for a free header just before the break.
Reminiscent of the way he allowed Rafael Varane to score in either leg of the Copa Del Rey, it would appear that the defender has not learnt lessons from earlier this term which is a real cause for concern.
At least the ever-reliable Xavi followed his usual "you give me the ball, I pass the ball" edict. What attacking foray there was from Barcelona invariably arrived via the prompting of the Spanish international.
Xavi received his customary ovation as he made way for his teammate on 58 minutes, and with the introduction of Messi, the complexion of this game changed...and how!
Within two touches the Argentine had already had a shot on goal and in just eight second-half minutes, he had created two half-chances for Pedro and Fabregas and then the coup de grace which is his signature.
With seemingly no danger whatsoever, Messi received the ball from Thiago just outside of the Bilbao area. Gurpegi, Herrera and San Jose were twisted one way then the other as the Argentine slalomed his way through and picked his spot past Gorka Iraizoz who had been, to that point, a spectator.
To be seeing the impossible made manifest each week by this man is visceral.
Just 126 more seconds had passed when Messi had set up Barca's second, Alexis Sanchez finishing with aplomb.
To Athletic's credit, they continued to battle away. Juventus-bound Fernando Llorente replaced Aduriz on 73 to give some height and renewed impetus to Marcelo Bielsa's Lions, but as the game drifted toward the business end, it seemed likely Barcelona had completed the task in hand.
However the sting in the tail arrived on 89 minutes. The high ball into the box would routinely have been cleared by Pique, yet he was dallying out on the right-hand touchline.
Jordi Alba committed the cardinal sin for a footballer of turning his back on play, only to give him a perfect view of ball in onion bag as the on-rushing Herrera's shot crashed into the net.
It was a sorry end to proceedings for La Blaugrana and is certainly not a game that will give Jupp Heynckes and his merry band of Bavarian bruisers any sleepless nights.
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