FC Barcelona may have started 2016 with a defeat at San Mamés, but with the second leg at the Camp Nou to come in six days’ time, their bid to win a third Copa del Rey title in a row is still very much on track. And despite the result, even if the games to come this year are only half as action-packed as this one, Barça fans have got twelve very exciting months indeed to look forward to!
Athletic went straight into it with the kind of attitude that several teams have been taking against Barça of late: fast, pulsating football in the hope of preventing the Catalans from settling into their usual game-plan. And it worked because aside from a chance that Messi put wide on 12 minutes, it was the home side that dictated most of the early play.
But Barça have grown accustomed to weathering such early storms, and Ter Stegen was relatively untroubled for the first 25 minutes. However, just when it looked like the pressure was starting to ease off, Athletic pounced not once but twice.
Aduriz robbed Iniesta and laid the ball wide to Raúl García, who lofted it back over the face of the goal, where the aforesaid Bilbao centre forward was waiting to head home. Barça had barely recovered from that blow when the Lions bit for the second time. Scorer turned provided as Aduriz supplied a high backheel for Williams to rifle home.
From the goals until the break, the game oozed intensity. There was deep concern when Aduriz caught Umtiti on the collar bone and the Frenchman spent a worrying amount of time on the ground. Athletic keeper Gorka produced a fabulous save to deny Neymar Jr at one end and seconds later Ter Stegen was doing likewise to prevent Williams from scoring at the other.
And there was more to talk about over the half-time break. Etxeita brought down Neymar in the area and Iniesta, Jordi Alba and Busquets were all convinced that it was a textbook penalty. But all they gained from expressing that opinion was a yellow card each. And that brought a difficult first 45 minutes to an end.
Messi pulls one back
Things were suddenly a whole lot brighter after 52 minutes, when Messi’s free-kick threw Barça right back into the game. In keeping with high drama of the night, the Argentinian’s strike hit Gorka, the crossbar and then the ground before bounding back into play. The referee adjudged the ball to have crossed the line and the replays proved him right. 2-1.
As the second half progressed, Barça dominated more and more of the possession, while Athletic’s intent on defending rather than extending their lead only became stronger when Raul García was carded for the second time in the game following a clumsy tackle on Neymar. Moments later, Irurraspe left the field for the same reason. Barça would be playing the last ten minutes against nine.
Understandably it was one-way traffic from then on, with Luis Enrique able to permit the extraordinary luxury of sending on Paco Alcácer as a fourth forward.
Athletic parked their limited resources deep in their own area and pushed them to the absolute limit in an admirable effort to hold on. It was cup football at its most thrilling best – all that was missing was the Barça equaliser.
That didn’t come, not even when Messi rifled the ball onto the post in the very last second. A remarkable 90 minutes of football ended 2-1 to Athletic, and things are now set for an absolute corker of a second leg at Camp Nou next Wednesday at 9.15pm CET.