Barcelona striker Luis Suarez saluted “one of the best in the world” after watching goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen deny Athletic Bilbao victory.
The Germany international produced saves from Markel Susaeta and Inaki Williams either side of half-time as Bilbao held La Liga leaders Barca to a 0-0 draw at Estadio San Mames on Sunday evening.
Suarez told LaLiga TV: “He’s one of the best in the world, no question. He showed it again – that’s why he’s the Barcelona keeper.”
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde was equally impressed by his goalkeeper, and particularly his stop from Williams eight minutes from time.
He said: “He’s made some amazing saves, especially the last one, it was incredible.”
It proved to be a frustrating night for the leaders as they started and finished slowly and when they were on top, struggled to find their usual cutting edge.
Messi, who has been nursing a thigh injury, was laboured in his attempts to make the impact he normally does as he found himself tightly and robustly marked, often to his clear frustration, while Philippe Coutinho was also off-key.
Valverde said: “We couldn’t really get going in the last third of the field. We thought the game would have more rhythm and it just didn’t turn out like that.
“We’re just responsible for what we do and I think in general, we should have created more than we did. They pressed us high, but we did get through that and we did get through to their box.
“But then that left us exposed to counter-attacks and they created problems.”
The visitors now sit six points clear of second-placed Real Madrid, while their hosts eased themselves four clear of the drop zone with a more than creditable result.
Indeed, Athletic boss Gaizka Garitano was left wondering what might have been after seeing his players create more than enough chances to win the game, only to be thwarted repeatedly by Ter Stegen.
Garitano said: “When you get a point against Barcelona, you should be happy. They dominated things more in the second half and Ter Stegen had a terrific game.
“In the first half an hour (of the second half), we suffered more, but they didn’t create a lot of chances.
“We’re happy with a point, but looking at the chances we had, we could have won it.”
Bilbao have lost one of the nine league games they have played since Garitano replaced Eduardo Berizzo in December, although he is refusing to be carried away by that run.
The manager said: “All the games in La Liga are difficult. Even if you defend well, if you don’t score, you are going to suffer. But we’ll just keep working hard.”
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The captain looked short of his best in the midweek Copa del Rey draw against Real Madrid, and missed training on Friday – the second time in the week he was absent from training after sustaining a thigh injury in last Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Valencia.
Meanwhile, Ousmane Dembele returned to the squad after his own injury issues, having missed the last five games with an ankle injury.
His return to fitness could mean Philippe Coutinho is left out of the XI, though if Messi is deemed not fit enough to start then Coutinho and Dembele could play together.
Barcelona will be looking to restore their eight-point lead over Real Madrid, who moved into second place in La Liga after beating Atletico Madrid in Saturday’s derby. Any slip-up could reignite the title race between the two bitter rivals.
Barcelona are wavering in their stance on midfielder Philippe Coutinho as the club’s record-signing’s struggles continue.
Though the former Liverpool man was linked with moves away during the January transfer window, Barcelona showed no interest in letting Coutinho go at the time.
But according to Marca, that stance has changed as La Blaugrana have reportedly begun letting clubs know they will listen to offers for the man they paid €155 million for last January.
The shift in thinking has come as manager Ernesto Valverde’s attempts to rebuild Coutinho’s confidence, giving him a run of games in recent weeks to allow him a chance to hit form, have not borne fruit.
Coutinho has three goals and an assist in 10 games since the winter break ended, but one of those came from a penalty and his performances in general have not improved.
In addition he was at fault for a goal in Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Valencia last weekend, failing to track Rodrigo Moreno’s run for the visitors’ opener in a moment that highlighted his lack of defensive effort.
Though it is not certain that the Catalan club are definitely ready to cut their losses on their record signing, just the fact that they’re willing to entertain the idea shows how far his star has fallen since getting his dream move.