Athletic entered Camp Nou on Tuesday night in a rare position. The Lions had already beaten Barcelona twice this season and were looking for number three, but a victory would be far from simple. It had been nearly 20 years since Athletic last won a league game at Camp Nou and Barcelona had no plans of letting that change, especially in the midst of a battle for the La Liga title.
Gaizka Garitano fielded an unexpected lineup with key players such as Iker Muniain, Ander Capa, Raúl García, Dani García, and Iñigo Martinez all on the bench. It was clear that the manager wanted to give them all a much-needed rest with very important matches on the horizon and the team didn’t falter despite the changes.
Just three minutes into the game Athletic would have their first sniff at goal. A cross from Unai López fell to the back post but was just out of reach for Unai Núñez. Not long after the Lions had another dangerous attack that resulted in an off-target long shot from Mikel Balenziaga.
As usual, Barcelona caused problem going forward and we always probing the back line looking for an opening. Twice Luis Suarez was set up for promising shots but wasn’t able to put either on target. Iñigo Lekue would soon get involved with a nice dribble into the box and nearly set up Iñaki Williams for a goal until the pass was cleared away.
Athletic were constantly looking to play Williams through on goal with Oihan Sancet leading the attacks. The 20-year-old was in top form and connected well with Williams in the final third when only the final ball seemed to be missing. Meanwhile, Mikel Vesga was tasked with marking Lionel Messi and was arguably the best player on the pitch as he routinely made timely challenges and interceptions.
Unai Simón would be called on to make his first save just after the break when Antoine Griezmann was given the ball with only the goalkeeper to beat. Fortunately, Simón was able to make the stop and moments later Ansu Fati would put a header over the crossbar. Garitano soon brought on Iker Muniain and Ander Capa to reinforce the attack which made an immediate impact.
Just when it looked as though Athletic were beginning to take control and create more problems going forward, Barcelona would strike. An unlucky bounce off of Yeray fell to Ivan Rakitic in the box and the midfielder calmly slotted a shot past Simón to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
Raúl García was quickly brought on as Athletic searched for an equalizer. Núñez would eventually put a header too high which was followed by a chance for García but the 33-year-old couldn’t make clean contact with the ball. Simón made two more big saves in quick succession during stoppage time to deny Barcelona more goals which was followed by the final whistle.
Athletic deserved something from the incredible performance but will return to Bilbao empty-handed. Still, the team played very well and with key players having a chance to rest the Lions should be refreshed going into Saturday’s match against Mallorca at San Mamés. Following the loss to Barcelona, a victory will be the only acceptable result.