Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde insisted that Lionel Messi was completely fit for the Athletic Bilbao clash which ended in a goalless draw.
The Catalans were frustrated at San Memes and were forced to split points with the hosts. Real Madrid cut the gap to six points, with a win in the Madrid derby, and these results have now blown open La Liga’s title race.
The Argentine looked like he was holding back for majority of the first half and failed to bail out an average Barcelona side.
“Messi is fine and he has played at 100 per cent,” Valverde said after the match, according to Goal.
“He has had some difficulties, because we had them as a collective, but when he plays it is because is absolutely convinced everything is fine.”
However, he did admit that Arturo Vidal and Coutinho were far from their best.
“It’s like everything else when you get a draw that you think that you should have won,” Valverde said.
“It is a matter for the whole team and people always point to a player because he failed a pass or some situation. It is true that sometimes they can be more successful.”
Barcelona had Marc-Andre ter Stegen to thank after coming away from a tough game at Athletic Bilbao with a goalless draw, and the German keeper is our man of the match after making a pair of outstanding saves.
Find out how everyone else performed at San Mames with our full player ratings.
Herrerin 6. Only had to make two saves, routine stops from Messi and Dembele, and dealt with crosses well.
De Marcos 6. Did a solid job at right-back, but was sent off inside injury time after collecting two yellow cards.
Yeray 8. Excellent in the heart of defence for the home team, offering tigerish tackling and breaking up countless attacks.
Martinez 7. Read the game well and was constructive in possession, helping shackle Suarez with an assured display.
Balenziaga 6. Sharp anticipation and disciplined positionally, rarely straying forward and keeping a close eye on Messi.
D Garcia 6. Worked hard to control the space in the centre of the pitch, focussing on defensive duties and rarely getting forward.
Benat 5. Unusually wayward with his passing and unable to control the game as he’d expect. Taken off early in the second half.
Susaeta 6. Came close with a curler and was prominent in the opening period, but faded after the break and was replaced.
R Garcia 6. Nearly netted with an overhead volley and had a snapshot deflected wide. Always a dangerous presence.
Yuri 6. Drove down the left to fire just wide early on, and continued to play with intent and energy.
Williams 7. Led the line with purpose, linking play well and stretching Barça’s defence. Forced a remarkable save from Ter Stegen.
San Jose 6. Introduced for Benat ten minutes into the second half. Thrashed a fierce shot from 20 yards narrowly wide.
Muniain 7. Came on after an hour with his team struggling and provided a spark with a bright and sharp cameo. Should have started.
Kodro. The final change for Athletic, coming on for Williams very late. Had no chance to make an impact.
Ter Stegen 8. Made a magnificent leaping save to deny Susaeta and an even better stop to keep out a late Williams strike.
Roberto 6. Was tested defensively by Yuri but helped spur on his team’s attacking efforts with a series of penetrating bursts.
Pique 7. Another strong performance from a player in fine form and becoming more of a leader as he matures.
Lenglet 7. Had a good battle with Williams and did well, but gave cause for concern by limping off in the latter stages.
Semedo 6. Deputised for suspended Jordi Alba at left-back and looked better going forward than he did defensively.
Rakitic 6. Had more touches than any other player, using the ball sensibly and making supporting runs into the box.
Busquets 6. Subdued in the first half but vital to his team’s improvement after the break, knitting play together with astute passing.
Vidal 5. Produced some sloppy touches in midfield and just looked rather hectic. Replaced by Alenya after an hour.
Messi 7. At the heart of everything Barca did in attack, having their only truly dangerous shot and always offering a threat.
Suarez 5. Glanced a first-half header wide but was otherwise frustrated, working hard without gaining any reward.
Coutinho 6. Very quiet in the first half but much more involved after the break, coming inside to combine with Messi.
Alenya 6. Barca’s first entrant from the bench, he came into midfield and looked bright enough to warrant more playing time.
Dembele 5. Came on for Coutinho after 75 minutes and did little other than cutting inside to curl one shot at the keeper.
Vermaelen. Replaced the injured Lenglet for the final stages and had little to do.
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.