Barcelona came from behind to keep their slim title hopes alive with a 2-1 victory at home to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday evening at the Camp Nou.
After a scoreless first half that featured multiple chances for both sides, Aritz Aduriz put Athletic ahead in the 50th minute after Iker Muniain dispossessed Barcelona defender Marc Bartra. The hosts turned the match around with two goals in as many minutes midway through the second half, Pedro pulling Barcelona level before Lionel Messi won it with a free kick.
The win came at a crucial time for Barcelona, who had lost three consecutive matches in all competitions to end their challenge for silverware on two fronts. First, Gerardo Martino's side lost 1-0 at Atletico Madrid on April 9, sending Barca out of the UEFA Champions League in the quarter-finals. Barcelona then suffered a 1-0 defeat at Granada last week in the league and lost 2-1 to rivals Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final on Wednesday.
But although the losing streak is over, the damage might have already been done in the league table as well. Even after Sunday's victory, the Blaugrana trail leaders Atletico Madrid by four points with four matches remaining. Barcelona host Atletico on the season's final day, but for that match to matter, Atletico must drop points in at least one of their three other games before then.
"We have had a lack of precision in the final third," Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino told reporters (via ESPN FC) ahead of the match. "We have to rediscover that and we have a duty to fight until the end."
Athletic, meanwhile, continue to fight for a Champions League berth. Currently holding fourth place and Spain's final qualification spot, Athletic lead Sevilla by only three points—with Sevilla set to visit the San Mames next weekend.
Barcelona were missing several first-team regulars including Neymar, Gerard Pique, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets. Athletic had the first clear chance in the ninth minute, Aduriz running onto Ander Herrera's pass on the right side of the box before shooting low toward the near post, where Jose Pinto saved.
Barcelona's first opening came four minutes later as Messi unlocked Athletic's defence with a clever through ball. Pedro latched onto the pass but shot straight at Gorka Iraizoz. Pedro then set up Messi for another opportunity moments later, but Iraizoz saved again to keep Barca out.
Messi had the ball in the net for Barcelona in the 18th minute after tapping in from Andres Iniesta's cross, but Messi was ruled offside and the goal was ruled out. Adriano came close again two minutes later after a flowing team move from Barcelona, only for defender Mikel Balenziaga to clear off the line at the back post.
Athletic were unlucky not to take the lead in the 30th minute after Aduriz hit the post with a spectacular overhead kick. The rebound bounced to Markel Susaeta, whose bouncing volley was saved by Pinto.
Barcelona hit the woodwork at the other end just two minutes later, Pedro crossing from the left for Alexis, whose first-time shot slammed off the crossbar. Alexis then forced a save from Iraizoz in the 38th minute with a low drive from the right side of the box.
The hosts were steadily growing in confidence, and Pedro forced another save one minute later after pulling down Adriano's cross. But although both teams had chances in the first half, the score remained 0-0 at half-time.
Messi had the first chance of the second half, whipping a free kick over the bar in the 49th minute. Moments later, though, Athletic went ahead.
In the 50th minute, Iker Muniain dispossessed Marc Bartra near the edge of Barcelona's box. Aduriz ran onto the ball, cut to the left and finished past Pinto at the far post to put Athletic ahead 1-0.
The visitors thought they had doubled their lead in the 54th minute via Susaeta, but the goal was ruled out for offside in the build-up. Barcelona came close to an equaliser in the 58th minute, but Iraizoz made a fine kick save to keep out Pedro's shot from the left. Messi then rolled a shot wide of the post after slipping behind Athletic's defence two minutes later.
Barcelona found their equaliser in the 72nd minute. Dani Alves started the move, passing to Alexis on the right. Alexis played the ball into the middle, where Pedro redirected it into the net past Iraizoz.
Two minutes later, Barca went ahead thanks to a moment of Messi magic.
After winning a free kick just outside Athletic's box, Messi drove a low, angled shot past the wall and Iraizoz complete Barcelona's quick turnaround.
Pinto saved from Susaeta in the 77th minute as Barcelona defended their lead. Javier Mascherano then blazed a shot just wide of Athletic's goal eight minutes later.
Athletic had a big chance to equalise in stoppage time as Balenziaga picked out substitute Mikel Rico with a cross from the left. Balenziaga's first-time shot was on target, but Mascherano stretched his body to make a crucial block and preserve the victory for Barcelona.
|Barcelona Player Ratings|
|Jose Manuel Pinto||6||6.3|
|Cesc Fabregas (for Xavi, 70')||N/A||6|
|Cristian Tello (for Alexis, 87')||N/A||6|
Defender Javier Mascherano said Barcelona must continue to believe they can win the title. Speaking to Canal+ (via Football Espana), Mascherano said:
Beyond the criticism that we’ve received we have to stay professional and do our job. We must hold on to the illusion that is the title. We can’t change our ways. We’ve always had dignity, and we have to stay that way until the end.
Xavi, meanwhile, spoke about how difficult it was for Barcelona to overcome the dual disappointments in the Champions League and Copa del Rey. As quoted by Inside Spanish Football, he said:
We knew how important this match was going into it and we knew that it all depended on ourselves. It’s important to win and wait. Overall, we did well, both in attack and defence. We’re eliminated from the Champions League and we lost the Copa del Rey. Those were two devastating blows for the team and we needed to overcome them. We need to continue playing at our highest level because this team still has to fight.
On Messi's goal, Xavi added: "Today, once again, Messi decided the result. Too much is asked of him on too many occasions. We need to keep him calm and let him do his work."
Barcelona play at Villarreal next Sunday in the league.
Athletic Bilbao host Sevilla the same day.