Loss to Athletic has several silver linings

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

Barcelona’s 1-0 defeat at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday night can be taken as a positive for everyone concerned with Spanish football, including the ‘Blaugrana’.

For Barca, it may be the jolt it needs to prove that although Gerardo Martino's side started the season with a 20-game unbeaten streak in all competitions, all is not running as smoothly as it could be and the squad was only ever a few key injuries away from below-par performances.

The first sign was in Amsterdam last week in the Champions League, where a Barca side uncharacteristically posed very little attacking threat while losing 2-1 to Ajax who played most of the second half with 10 men.

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That loss was explained by the unimportance of the game to Barca, which had qualified for the knockout stage. But the alarm bells were clearly ringing four days later with the performance in Bilbao which allowed the two Madrid sides back into what is a three-horse race at the top of La Liga.

On Wednesday, Gerard Pique faced the press for some self-assessment and recognised the two defeats have produced doubts within the club that only the players can answer.

"There are two options or we continue to sink or we pick ourselves up and move on", he said, sticking to the party line presented by Martino straight after Sunday's game -- that the performance in Bilbao was nowhere as bad as the one in Amsterdam.

And they are right to a degree -- on another night Ander Iturraspe could have been sent off for his foul on Neymar with the game goalless and Barca could have gone on to win a tight battle. Credit has to be given to Athletic Bilbao for sticking to a game plan and forcing the only goal, but Barca should not be too downhearted by that defeat.

However, the affect the loss could have is to speed up the process of player recruitment with the winter transfer window now around the corner and many 'incognitos' within the Barca squad.

Until now, Martino is thought to have not requested any signings in January, but with question marks hanging over so many current players and a need to recruit at least two goalkeepers, a central defender, midfielder and perhaps even a forward, it would be no surprise to see some movement in or out of the club in January.

For the rest of the league, the benefits are obvious. Barca is fallible; Ajax and then Athletic Club have proved that and there will be a title race. It currently involves three sides and that can only be good for the profile of La Liga.

In a week when both Barca and Real Madrid were hit with multi-million euro fines for signing TV deals longer than the permitted duration, it comes as some comfort that an Athletic Bilbao side with a budget this year of 58 million euros can take on and beat a club that plans to spend 470 million euros.

La Liga needs a strong Athletic Bilbao team, as it does a strong Sevilla and Valencia, otherwise the competition is going to continue to lose interest at its top end.

Atletico Madrid is the only club so far to show it can keep up with the big two who are now reaping the financial benefits of signing huge individually negotiated TV contracts. Steps have been taken to change the distribution of TV money in the future, while the La Liga title has been contested solely between two clubs since Valencia managed to win it in 2004.

Rather than discussing if a club such as Barca is in crisis after two defeats in 22 games, we should be glad to see that La Liga still has enough competitive edge to put these top sides to the sword once in a while. And remember that while Messi was out for Barca, Athletic Club was missing Aritz Aduriz, their best attacking option.

The weekend before last, a top Spanish football journalist tweeted his belief that Getafe, Almeria and Granada would be a strong test for the league’s top three sides -- he was left with egg on his face when Atletico, Real and Barca by a combined 16-0 (7-0, 5-0, 4-0 respectively).

Athletic Bilbao showed Barca on Sunday that they can still be beaten in the Spanish league. The day this ceases to be the case UEFA may as well extend the Champions League to cover the weekends and the rest of the clubs can start the national leagues over again without the distraction of playing the super clubs.


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