Gaizka Garitano set the tempo and expectations before Athletic kicked off Sunday’s match against Barcelona. “You have to play hard against Barcelona and be bold”, the manager said in his pregame press conference. That’s exactly what the Basques did from the opening whistle when they showed no fear of taking on the league leaders in what was a very entertaining match.
It was the Lions who had the best chances early on with Iñaki Williams and Oscar De Marcos both getting the ball in the box in the opening minutes. Athletic were as organized as ever in defense and looked to press when possible which led to a few turnovers. Just 11 minutes into the game Yuri Berchiche stepped up to intercept a pass and ran to the corner of the box before blasting a shot just wide of the post.
Five minutes later Markel Susaeta put the ball on his left foot and tried to curl a shot into the far corner. It was heading into the back of the net before the goalkeeper managed to get a hand to it and give Athletic a corner kick. Barcelona would then have their best chance when Lionel Messi lifted a deep pass over the top of the defense to Luis Suarez who wasn’t able to direct his header on goal.
Never once did Athletic lessen their intensity or pressure and they were constantly rewarded for the effort. In the 24th minute Raúl García had a bicycle kick in the box which saw the goalkeeper make another impressive save. The midfielder would have another chance when he received the ball wide open at the far post. Somehow Sergi Roberto was able to just get a deflection on the shot which most likely would have ended up in a goal. The Catalans tried to create more chances in the final moments of the first half but the whistle sounded with both sides still scoreless and the San Mamés roaring.
Barcelona were determined not to suffer their second straight draw, or lose altogether, and came out with all of the momentum to start the second half. They pinned Athletic deep in the final third to defend and the Lions did well to handle the constant onslaught. A few times players like Dani García and Beñat were forced to commit fouls but the Basques held their ground.
After the hour mark Iker Muniain came on for Markel Susaeta and the game immediately began to change. Athletic were more dangerous going forward and there was added creativity that Barcelona had to account for when they didn’t have the ball. Mikel San José nearly gave Athletic the lead in the 64th minute when he sent a rocket of a shot from outside the box on a free kick that curved wide of the post.
Both sides traded possession and Athletic were never afraid to take the ball right at Barcelona. In the 81st minute a turnover led to another attack with Iñaki Williams settling a pass just feet in front of Ter Stegen. He struck the ball with his right foot which was surely going to be a goal until the keeper somehow got an arm to the ball which stunned the San Mamés.
Five minutes later Iñaki would get another shot from the right side of the box, this time from a tight angle, and Ter Stegen made another impressive save. After five added minutes the final whistle finally sounded with Athletic having picked up a very important point from the scoreless draw. There was a bit of drama at the end however as Oscar De Marcos was shown a second yellow after the ball struck the back of his shoulder and he was called for a hand ball. Athletic will surely appeal the booking in hopes of the 29-year-old not having to serve a one game suspension.
The fantastic performance could have seen Athletic win the game especially considering their late chances that were saved. Still, a draw against Barcelona is always a good result and the Zurigorri end the weekend 13th in the La Liga table with 27 points. Athletic could climb as high as 10th with a win over Huesca on Monday and are now just 5 points off of the European qualifying zone of the table.