Three Things: Athletic Bilbao vs. Barcelona

Posted by Dermot Corrigan

Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty ImagesMatch-winner Iker Muniain was a handful vs. Barcelona's defense.

BILBAO, Spain -- Athletic Bilbao pulled off a massive 1-0 upset at home against Barcelona, who were clearly struggling to cope with their current injury crisis. Iker Muniain's 70th minute goal proved to be all that was needed to knock out the current La Liga leaders.

Here are three observations from the stunning result:

1. Martino needs answers

It sounds kind of crazy to say it with his team still top of the Primera Division standings, but Gerardo Martino is close to his first real crisis moment as Barcelona manager. Even when Barca were winning 4-0 at Rayo Vallecano in September, Martino was fielding brickbats in Catalonia for tinkering too much with the tiki-taka style so beloved by Barca fans and pundits. Now that the team has lost two defeats in a week, his critics have the ammunition needed.

The Argentine coach, usually very open and effusive in press conferences, was clearly on the defensive afterwards here. He claimed his team's first half had been among their best 45 minutes of the season, suggested the result would have been different if home midfielder Ander Iturraspe had been sent off for a professional foul on Neymar at 0-0.

But this was not really true. Barca only really tested Athletic keeper Gorka Iraizoz once -- through Neymar early in the game, and it was clearly more important that they lacked real drive and zest to try and equalise once they fell behind. The impression was again of a team not exactly sure what it should be doing, not comfortable [or in agreement] with the tactical tweaks which their coach is introducing, and -- really -- not over concerned at losing the game. There was talk in the Catalan media of Martino having read the riot act in the dressing-room at half-time at Ajax on Tuesday, and of the players having not really reacted.

Bobby Robson won the 1996-97 Copa del Rey and Cup Winners Cup trophies. But his more functional team [reliant on the Brazilian Ronaldo] was always compared unfavourably with that of Johan Cruyff's previous side, and the genial Englishman was pushed aside after only one season. Unless Barca start playing with more style and conviction, even if Messi returns and fires them to a trophy or two, Barca's latest Argentine could face a similar fate.

2. Busquets now Barca's midfield leader

Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty ImagesSergio Busquets' importance in Barcelona's midfield continues to grow under Gerardo Martino.

Barca watchers and statisticians have grown used to Xavi Hernandez setting the tone for their team with his metronomic movement of the ball in midfield, often racking up more than 100 passes a game and directing Barca attacks at will. But in the first half here, when his side were on top, it was Sergio Busquets who was most involved, touching the ball 57 times to Xavi's 44.

Barca's No. 16 was everywhere, always apparently in the right place at the right time to pick up a loose ball on the edge of his box, or choosing correctly in whether to release the ball forward quickly to Neymar or Alexis, or to slow things down by playing it back to a defender. Iniesta was regularly involved -- and drew whistles from home fans who remember an incident which saw ex-defender Fernando Amorebieta sent off three years ago, but Xavi was really quiet.

Busquets seems to have more freedom and responsibility under Martino, he has allowed a few flicks and tricks to enter his game, and often presses further up the pitch when he feels it is necessary. Here he was involved in both Barca’s best first half moves, which saw Neymar bringing the game’s only real save from Gorka Iraizoz, and Martin Montoya delaying and having a shot blocked. Even if you can still argue that Busquets is not Barca’s most game-changing player, it is definite that he is irreplaceable.

It was particularly striking to see Martino remove first Xavi and then Iniesta as his team went looking for the equaliser. He admitted afterwards this had been a risk "we knew we might lose control but we wanted to be more direct."

One wonders what Xavi really thought of those words.

3. Athletic top four challenger

Rafa Rivas/Getty ImagesAthletic is a hard team to beat at San Mames.

The best consolation for Martino and Blaugrana fans is that Barcelona will not be the last team to leave the new San Mames disappointed this season. Ernesto Valverde's side this season are more patient and steady than Marcelo Bielsa's, and could now go further in La Liga than El Loco even managed in his first, successful, campaign in charge. Los Leones are still unbeaten at their new home, and have already developed a very useful tendency to come on strong in the second half of games and find a way to win.

Their main issue looks to be who will score the goals -- suspended first choice number nine Aritz Aduriz was really badly missed here and watching his replacement Gaizka Toquero miss chances grew quite painful. Toquero is a bit of a cult hero, one of the gamest players in La Liga, and his hard work and enthusiasm did cause Barca’s defence problems, but he did not really test Barca keeper Jose Pinto with four clear scoring chances.

For a long while it seemed that such wastefulness in front of goal was going to cost Athletic a deserved win, and Toquero even almost got in Iker Muniain's way as the winger nipped in to convert Markel Susaeta's cross for the winner. Muniain looks revitalised this season under Valverde, and has now scored late winners in his last two games. Those wins have Athletic into fourth place -- and their coach admitted afterwards that a Champions League qualification spot was now a possible target -- but to do that they really need Aduriz [who has just three goals in 12 La Liga games this season] to up his rate.


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