Athletic Club and FC Barcelona played out a two-goal draw at San Mamés. Herrera and…
Athletic Club and FC Barcelona played out a two-goal draw at San Mamés. Herrera and Llorente twice gave our team the lead and Fabregas and Messi equalised twice. In theory, a good point against what is considered to be the best team in the world and the tenth consecutive match without defeat in a great match with capital letters, in terms of play, intensity, quality and incomparable atmosphere, but which leaves a bittersweet taste because of when and how the two-two came about.
However, in the next few days and with the league break in between, there will surely be plenty of time to draw even more positive conclusions. At the end, in Seville, Amorebieta and Iturraspe will not be able to take part because they will presumably be suspended.
All of the above without ignoring the reality. Surely, a few days ago, thousands of members and fans of the Red and Whites would have signed the goodness of a draw and many others would have joined in, later, after seeing how FC Barcelona approached the match, with two days more rest than our team due to a calendar designed with their feet, with several of their key players reserved…. and the thousands that were missing would have subscribed to this when they saw not only the line-up, but also the way in which the blaugranas approached the game when it came to trying to overcome the pressure that Bielsa’s men had decided on.
Because the gamble of going out to play Barcelona with their own weapons, without varying the discourse, one on one with all the pros and cons inherent in the footballing challenge, was soon seen in its full dimension. In fact, in the second minute a perfect series of triangulations allowed Adriano to face Iraizoz and he stopped the ball on the line.
The fast-paced start did not deter either the crowd or the players (the rain was the guest artist of the hour and a half of pure football) because both teams continued to play their game. For Athletic, which is obviously the most important thing, the players were well distributed on the pitch, but with perfectly defined missions that were summarised in the fact that the visitors did not move the ball with the diligence, speed and, at times, ease with which they usually manage to do so. At the same time, they were expected to attack quickly and forcefully against a team accustomed to conceding an average of one chance per game!
In view of what we saw, it was not necessary to be a fortune teller to foresee a fast-paced match, in which high tempo was not mixed with wildness, nor intensity with generalised ball rifling. What’s more, in some parts of the match, if our players could be blamed for anything, it was the loss of a few balls in an attempt to make things worse.
After the blaugrana warning, Herrera marked the path along which he was to score his first goal, he did it in the 13th minute with a ball into the hands of Valdés, who broke his long unbeaten record in the 19th minute after a spectacular play with a slip by Mascherano, a good incursion by Susaeta on the left and a pass from the death for Herrera to place, this time, the necessary thread far from the goalkeeper’s reach. A great goal, second in a week and a new perspective.
What was not new, as it was known and expected, was the reaction of FC Barcelona, who played perhaps their best minutes of the match. First, in the 22nd minute, Alves shot from a rehearsed move, but Iraizoz saved with his feet. Unfortunately, a great pass from Abidal to Fabregas in the 23rd minute ended with a perfect header from Fabregas and the score was level. Messi tried, wide, in the 25th minute and shortly afterwards Iraizoz blocked Iniesta’s finish with his foot, today one of his favourite weapons.
Once the footballing inclemency had passed, the Red and Whites took up the pressure again and the chances to score returned to their side. First in the 35th minute when the connection with Herrera worked, but his assist to Muniain ended with the latter’s forced shot being blocked by the goalkeeper.
After Xavi had shot wide, in the 38th minute Adriano grabbed Iraola by the shirt inside the area, a play in which perhaps the rain meant that the referee and, above all, his assistant, did not realise what almost all of San Mamés had seen. With all the football we experienced, the referee’s performance could not be considered decisive, despite a couple of offsides that were not offside, excessive rigour in fouls against in the second half and a few yellow cards not shown to the Barça players.
With everything still to play for, retreat to the changing rooms and the usual question and answer: Would the team keep up the physical pace in the second half, especially with the way the pitch was getting? Well, it’s going to be yes, what’s more, they have even been able to take the Culés to their dizzying exchange of blows. As an example, there they were, before 2-1, in the 80th minute, pressing Valdés’ kicks as if the ball had just started to roll.
And things continued to go from strength to strength in the second half, with the exception that some areas of the pitch were already worse for triangulation and invited long play. And it almost cost our team an upset after Javi Martínez’s attempted cross in the 49th minute went into no man’s land and Iniesta tried to solve it with a lob over Iraizoz, although the latter caught it well, just as he had cleared a poisoned cross that Piqué was waiting to finish off a little earlier.
In the opposing area Herrera called for a penalty, which didn’t seem to be a penalty, in a challenge on Mascherano. On the hour mark Iraizoz stopped Messi and Guardiola, short of manpower on the big pitch at La Catedral, introduced Alexis in place of Xavi with the consequent delay for Cesc Fabregas.
Athletic, tiring in their good work, proposed tight marking, unmarking with criteria and even allowed themselves to arrive by inertia when trying to get the ball played in high-risk areas. Amorebieta received a slightly excessive yellow card for touching Cesc on the back, a dangerous foul that caused less danger than an earlier right-footed shot by Adriano, who soon made way for Villa, another youth player.
Our team at least managed to make the ball less clear for the blaugranas and in one of these moves the pressure forced Mascherano to give the ball away badly and the ball ended up in a corner. Herrera threw it from the inside out, the ball hit Llorente’s knee and, as it was going in, Piqué finished it off. There was collective madness in the stands too, or at least in most of them. Thiago was ready to come on and Piqué was withdrawn.
Ten minutes plus extra time, a feat in the making and suffering because if there is one thing Barcelona have, it is that they believe in what they do. Iniesta was off with his left foot in the 84th minute, Iñigo Perez for Susaeta, the ball was going fast from one side to the other and the clock was running too slowly. Villa’s turn, with a shot saved by Gorka Iraizoz and a subsequent chance cleared with his foot in the 85th minute, Ibai in place of Muniain. To make matters worse, Amorebieta in the 89th minute was shown the yellow card and as it was his second yellow card he had to leave the pitch. Llorente, on his most grateful night when it came to sharing experiences with the fans, left his place to San José.
With his shirt torn, the image of the striker born in Iruñea, raised in La Rioja and trained and resident in Bizkaia, symbolised the Athletic of today: fight, courage, grit, determination in pressing and finishing, pride in belonging. A comforting feeling that lasts, but which was attenuated in stoppage time when Iturraspe, in his eagerness to clear, deprived Iraizoz of the ball, Javi Martínez was unable to get it far enough away and Messi, who had put the ball into the box, equalised to do justice to the efforts of both teams, but to leave us with that bittersweet taste we spoke of at the beginning.
However, it cannot be denied that the overall good run of form, with seven consecutive league games in a row including points, and the feeling of being a compact and similar team at home and away, makes the regret for what could have been and wasn’t less so as we wait for the new break to recharge our batteries for the next and equally demanding challenges to come.