El Centrocampista

DANCING IN THE DELUGE – How Bielsa’s boys almost broke Barça

By Lee Roden

In the most anticipated meeting of the minds since Craig Charles joined Coronation Street, Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa came head to head at the San Mames tonight.

It was a match that in reality was far from classic in terms of quality, but top drawer in the entertainment department.

Having earlier been sent a picture of Barcelona’s Passeig de Gracia metro station looking like an underground river, I had a feeling that the conditions further north would be no better. As it turns out, the pitch in Bilbao started off terribly and ended up like a pigsty.

It was clear from the start that both teams would need to adjust their tactics accordingly, and Athletic seemed the most prepared to do so. Barcelona conversely, often resorted to hurried passing and long ball tactics that didn’t really pay off.

Whilst Athletic seemed to thrive on the weather, Barça looked uncomfortable. This was soon proven when Bilbao went one ahead courtesy of a swift counterattacking move. Though Barça’s equaliser arrived in due time, it was fittingly un-Barcelona like, with Eric Abidal playing a perfect high cross onto the head of Cesc Fabregas, who thundered the ball into the net.

Barça were showing signs of a team out of sorts, and this was no more apparent than when Javier Mascherano played a long ball to nowhere into his own half from the middle of the pitch, resulting in a corner for the home team.

From the subsequent set play, Abidal made a poor clearance that Llorente soon pounced upon, and the ball hit the back of the net courtesy of Gerard Pique’s boot. The farcical nature of both the build-up play and the goal itself was a perfect snapshot of what the game was quickly becoming due to the weather.

Despite the torrential rain, the flow of the game showed that under Bielsa, Bilbao are much better equipped to try and win these kind of fixtures against teams like Barcelona.

Whilst in the past the Basques would have shut up shop and hoped for a lucky break, they now defended intelligently then moved the ball with frightening speed and accuracy on the counter attack, displaying some of the best one touch passing I’ve witnessed in La Liga all season. This was even more admirable considering the difficult surface.

Iker Muniain in particular was fantastic throughout, and seemed to have an ongoing battle with Andres Iniesta over who could hold the ball for the longest under pressure. In the end, the youngster probably won. Despite squandering a brilliant chance to put Athletic ahead early on, Muniain held the ball with incredible composure considering the constant Barça pressing and difficulty of the pitch.

And then we turn our heads to Messi. The Argentine’s performance in the Basque country wasn’t one of his best, and yet as is so often true, he scored a vital goal after playing poorly by his standards. Messi has a unique ability to do nothing for 89 minutes, and do everything in one.

This was to be the case when he pounced on an error from Iturraspe in the dying seconds and fired the ball home, rescuing a point for Barcelona and lessening the damage done by Real Madrid. What is truly ironic is that now that Messi has scored in an away tie, pressure will no doubt turn elsewhere. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t play well, and shows the skewed priorities often exhibited in the Spanish media.

For a game billed as master vs. padawan, the battle of the coaches had little impact in the end. It was the weather, not tactical brilliance that decided this tie. Looking forward, the return fixture next year is a mouth-watering thought, and it’s clear that Athletic are a team truly on the up.

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