Barcelona moved six points clear at the top of La Liga with a hard-fought goalless draw against impressive Athletic Bilbao at San Mames on Sunday night.
Both teams can be fairly satisfied with the result after Barca controlled the majority of the possession, but the home team carved out the better chances.
And the fact that the league leaders kept a clean sheet was largely thanks to one man – whose contribution is the first of our talking points to emerge from the action.
TER STEGEN ADDS TO HIGHLIGHTS REEL
Spectacular saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen have become par for the course during the German keeper’s four years between the posts for Barca, and he added another couple of remarkable stops to the collection on Sunday night.
His first major intervention didn’t take long to arrive, as Athletic winger Markel Susaeta cut inside from the right and reached the edge of the box before curling a well-struck left-footed shot, which appeared destined for the top corner before Ter Stegen leapt with great agility and flung out his right hand to tip the ball over the bar.
But he made an even better save inside the final ten minutes. Powerful home team striker Inaki Williams surged into the area and prodded a strong strike from ten yards, but Ter Stegen somehow reacted quickly enough to stick out his right hand and then had enough strength in his wrist to repel the ball to safety.
They were both superlative saves, and if Barca end up winning the title by a narrow margin his contribution to this point should not be forgotten.
Good view, good mood. 👍🏻👌🏻 pic.twitter.com/VTxc7ceRTV— Marc ter Stegen (@mterstegen1) January 31, 2019
ALBA AND ARTHUR BADLY MISSED
The state of Lionel Messi’s fitness dominated the pre-game discussions, and despite not being decisive on this occasion the Barca captain delivered his usual influential performance after eventually being passed fit to play.
However, Messi’s attempts to orchestrate his team’s attacking efforts were hugely hindered by the absence of the two men who are – after the Argentine himself – arguably the most important players in terms of knitting the team together: Jordi Alba and Arthur.
Left-back Jordi Alba was suspended for an accumulation of yellow cards, while Brazil midfielder Arthur has been ruled out for four weeks with a hamstring strain… and how they were missed. The lack of Alba’s penetrating runs down the wing removing one of Messi’s favourite targets, while the off-colour Arturo Vidal desperately struggled to match Arthur’s ability to keep the ball moving in the middle.
With Alba and Arthur missing, head coach Ernesto Valverde would have done worse than starting with another member of the ‘A team’ – young midfielder Carles Alena, whose technical ability would surely help improve the team’s flow. That was exactly the move made by Valverde after the hour mark, and the 21-year-old did more than enough during his time on the pitch to suggest he should be considered for more starts during the absence of Arthur.
ATHLETIC ON THE UP
The recent improvement effected by new Athletic manager Gaizka Garitano was very much confirmed by the home team’s vibrant performance, which suggests there is a lot more to come before the end of the season.
Indeed, with La Liga looking remarkably competitive there’s every reason to believe the Basque club could surge a lot higher than their current 13th position – perhaps even as high as the Champions League places.
Only 14 points separate Sevilla in fourth place and Rayo Vallecano in the relegation zone, and with 15 games still remaining there is plenty of room for serious movements up and down the table between now and May.
Fourth spot appears to be really up for grabs, with current occupants Sevilla running out of gas as their demanding season continues and obvious candidates like Valencia and Real Betis showing frailties. Any team in the middle reaches of the table which can string together four or five wins would propel itself into contention for a top-four finish, and on this evidence that could well be Athletic.
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.