Matchday 10 of La Liga EA Sports saw Barcelona welcome home Athletic Club and Ernesto Valverde in a challenging clash. The Basque side sat fifth on the league standings ahead of kickoff, while the Catalans sat two places ahead of the Basque side.
On the night, Xavi Hernandez opted for a smart blend of youth and experience. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen started in goal with a novel central defensive pairing of Andreas Christensen and Inigo Martinez. Joao Cancelo and Alejandro Balde started as the full-backs.
In midfield, the Blaugranas boasted of Gavi, Oriol Romeu and Ilkay Gundogan. Ferran Torres, Joao Felix and Fermin Lopez rounded off the starting XI.
It was Athletic Club that began the game on the front foot. Right off the opening whistle, the Basque side confidently kept possession and created openings which culminated in Inaki Williams’ early attempt that forced a save from Ter Stegen.
It was only close to the tenth minute that Barcelona got into their attacking element. Ferran Torres and Balde began the initial driving attacks while Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo soon caught up.
The first big chance for Xavi’s men came in the 11th minute when Torres started a rampant counter down the right. His central ball cleverly found Felix in space but the youngster’s finish unfortunately clipped the post.
Three minutes later, the game saw a big moment when Joao Felix was pushed into the Athletic Club area and went down. While the chance went amiss for the Catalans, even a VAR review did not give them a penalty for the foul.
The chances kept coming for both sides in the minutes that passed. Felix could not beat Simon in the 20th minute while Ter Stegen had to pull off a top-drawer save in the 21st minute to deny Inaki Williams’ volley.
The period that followed saw intense periods of possession from both Barcelona and Athletic Club in alternating tandem, both of whom created openings. However, concurrent strong defence saw most moves come out to nothing.
The visitors’ biggest chance of the first half arrived in its penultimate minute, unsurprisingly through the Williams brothers. While Nico’s shot was parried away by the goalkeeper, his brother had the ball fall kindly on the rebound. Only a last-ditch Inigo Martinez tackle saved the Catalans.
Two minutes later, Nico Williams was once again on the money, this time in an almost sure-shot scoring position. Ter Stegen’s save in the final minute was nothing short of breathtaking.
Heading into the halftime break, it was clear that the Azulgranas would need something special to close the gap with Real Madrid. While they indeed could have been ahead, they conceded chances of similar calibre to the Basque opposition. Of the two teams, it was Athletic Club that boasted of the momentum heading into the break.
The second half picked up where the first period left off. The opening minutes were far from eventful, but there was a visible purpose in the Catalans’ attacks.
As the minutes passed, Barcelona were visibly trying to rely on the full-backs to create a threat in the box. Unfortunately, they lacked a solid presence in the box to capitalise on the same.
Close to the hour mark, the hosts made their first clear move in the Athletic Club box. Felix’s shot was weakly stopped by Simon but Lopez could not capitalise on the rebound.
Ronald Araujo and Lamine Yamal replaced Andreas Christensen and Oriol Romeu in the 60th minute.
Four minutes after coming on, the La Masia protege was close to making a tangible impact. The move began with Felix’s forward run before the Portuguese star laid the ball off for Yamal. His shot, however, failed to hit the target.
Joao Cancelo attempted a solo run and shot from distance in the 75th minute but could not beat Unai Simon. The pressure was building on Barcelona, and they did not have answers.
Marcos Alonso and Marc Guiu came on for Alejandro Balde and Fermin Lopez in the 79th minute.
Just seconds after the change, Joao Felix played the substitute Guiu into space with a lovely ball. The youngster took one touch to bring the ball under control, and with just his second touch, played the ball past Simon smartly to find the back of the net. Xavi’s substitution had worked, and one could not have hoped for a more instant impact.
Athletic Club never really got back into the game after the setback, encouraging Barça to continue pushing for a second. Felix came very close to scoring in the 90th minute but had his header saved by Simon.
The win brings much-needed points in the Catalans’ kitty ahead of El Clasico and sets up for a great clash next weekend. Only one point separates Barcelona and Real Madrid in the standings now, and the victor in the Clasico will walk away with the lead in La Liga.