Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of their Copa Del Rey fixture at San Mamés is perhaps a bit underwhelming when first looked at, but then when you realize that they won the game with many players missing from the squad due to either injury or suspension, you will probably have a shift in your previous assumption. The key players that they were missing included the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez, along with left-back Jordi Alba, and centre-back Mathieu while Bravo was excused from the trip.
Their performance on the night was supposed to be hugely reliant on the attitude of the crowd at Bilbao’s colossal stadium, as well as how much Athletic Club’s players wanted to get their revenge. Whenever these two sides have faced off, whether in league or cup competitions, the game has always managed to pull a surprising result, not to mention endless intensity. It was evident by their last clash in La Liga last weekend, where Barca eventually won 6-0 but were promised a rough game from the early get-go when Bilbao were getting the better chances, and had it not been for the red card, we might’ve been looking at a very different scenario right now. Anyways, Barcelona might’ve gotten a rub of the green there like every champion needs to get at some point to get that edge over their competitors.
So things panning out as it did, Barca were surprisingly the more confident side going into this match, and they translated that confidence onto the pitch with a more direct passing game in the first half. The goal of Munir can be referred to as an excellent example, as it was all about the simple and clear-cut passes in the build-up that made the difference for them. They stopped trying to be clever, well, maybe because two of their most gifted players in that department were missing for this game, but more so, I think, because they knew that Athletic’s physical approach wouldn’t give them much time to think creatively when on the ball.
Barcelona’s second goal was a show of their persistence in trial and error, as most of their hoofs up the field weren’t producing much, but during Neymar’s goal, there were some poor mistakes made on which the Brazilian duly converted (into an empty net).
During the second half, the game got a little too physical for Barca’s liking, and players started dropping like flies. The referee wasn’t helping the situation either, instead looking more interested in letting the game follow its natural flow. Of course, Bilbao’s players were encouraged by this, which in turn made sure that six of them got booked before the game ended.
Anyhow, Barcelona showed their one true weakness today in their display during the second half. But, their defensive wall stood for the most part, and Bilbao couldn’t think a bit more creatively to go through it for the other. This changed in the closing stages of the game, when the Catalan club’s players, you’d assume, grew tired of playing this game, and were punished when Dani Alves passed it into the path of a Bilbao player right in front of the D. The chance was eventually converted by Bilbao’s vintage hero, Aritz Aduriz.
Barcelona got the luck that they needed at a ground as fierce as the San Mamés, and now lead the tie with 2 away goals. Moreover, they showed the doubters that they can cope with the physical sides when they face them and know how to get around teams of that calibre. These are the early signs of a truly special team, and it gives other clubs in Europe even more reasons to fear Barca. As if they weren’t good enough already.