Time to worry? Barcelona stumble on road again

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

There can be no complaints from Barcelona after their 1-0 loss in Bilbao on Sunday. Athletic outran, outfought and outplayed the league leaders, who are now level on 40 points with Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Real Madrid lurk ominously just three points behind as the race heated up after Barca’s first La Liga defeat since March. If Tuesday’s defeat in Amsterdam was a warning that things were not all right, confirmation came with Barca’s second defeat in six days and a very under-par performance.

There was a lack of the usual control and possession -- only two shots on target and no urgency after deservedly going behind on Iker Muniain's goal on 70 minutes.

-Corrigan: Three things-Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona

Afterward, Barca manager Gerardo Martino did not view the situation as worrying and thought his side’s first half was one of the best they have played this season. It was true the game was hugely competitive and well-balanced in the first period, but the coach would do well to admit that Barca struggled to get forward and have lost the ability to create chances over the course of the last two matches.

Obviously, Lionel Messi being out is always going to affect any side, while Neymar cannot be expected to carry the team on his own. On Sunday, he had trouble staying on his feet in the first half and had to change his boots on 34 minutes.

Two heavyweights in the centre of the team who have helped Barca solve problems such as the one they had in Bilbao on many previous occasions -- Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta -- were both substituted as Barca chased the game but failed to mount one telling attack in the final 20 minutes in search of an equaliser.

Xavi is looking less and less the player he has been in the past and has failed to make an impact in the two defeats since he returned from injury. While Jose Manuel Pinto made some good saves as deputy for Victor Valdes in goal, at times he looked insecure with the ball at his feet, which did not inspire confidence at the back.

From the kickoff in the new San Mames, it felt like things were going Athletic’s way, the huge roar of the crowd in the opening minutes urging on the local heroes who remain unbeaten in the new stadium. This was their first win in seven years over Barca, including Spanish Cup finals defeats in 2009 and 2012.

The loss ends a 26-game unbeaten run in the league since a defeat in the Santiago Bernabeu in March. One curious statistic is Barca have failed to win on four occasions this season wearing the new away shirt inspired by the yellow and red of the Catalan flag. At Osasuna, Milan and Ajax it also brought the side bad luck -- it's worth noting Manchester United famously dumped a grey away strip after a similar run of results.

Barca could say that Ander Iturraspe should have seen red when he put an arm across Neymar and pulled him over as he advanced into the area when the game was still goalless. Barca players were incredulous at the decision to only show yellow, but referee Juan Martinez Manuera decided Mikel Balenziaga was behind the play, meaning Iturraspe was not the final defender.

That will not change the fact that Athletic were far superior throughout the second half, they continuously tested the centre of Barca’s defence with crosses from the flanks and Pinto had to be alert twice to save from the head of the tireless Gaizka Toquero.

Athletic's pressure and running finally paid off on 70 minutes when the excellent Ander Herrera fed Susaeta down the right, and his cross was turned in by Muniain, who was equally as dangerous all game from the left wing.

For Barca, Cesc Fabregas had a quiet match while the more energetic Alexis Sanchez suffered from a lack of service. Martino waited until 82 minutes before sending Pedro on in an advanced position, but it made little difference. Barca were beaten by the better side and need to recover in the remaining two league games before the Christmas break.


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