It was not easy, but substitute Iván Rakitić gave Barça a critical second-half win. A match review of the Barcelona 1–0 Athletic Club de Bilbao.
As the referee blew the whistle, it was relief for Barcelona. Or, maybe, the relief had come in the 71st minute, when Iván Rakitić broke the deadlock only six minutes after coming on. Or even the relief could have arrived in the 55th minute, when manager Quique Setién decided to introduce La Masía midfield prospect Riqui Puig. At long last, all culés thought. The time had been long overdue for him to get more than some miserable ten or twenty minutes of action in a substantial La Liga game. But, in a crucial clash and with the game tied at nil-nil, Riqui was subbed on and his impact was immediate.
Fans had been calling for him to be brought in much earlier. Mostly, after a dull first half in which the ball circulation had been sluggish and there had been a worrying inability to intimidate Unai Simón’s goal. With Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann partnering up with Lionel Messi upfront, the lack of threat out wide was obvious. And this, considering Athletic Club’s dense central organisation, possibly was not a good option for the blaugranas. For Griezmann, what will never change is his desire to work. But, unfortunately, what doesn’t seem to change either is him making interesting off-ball movements but never being found by his teammates despite being in a more advantageous position than them on many occasions.
Luis Suárez, on the other hand, got another start after completing the full 90 minutes against Sevilla, but maybe rest was more needed for the Uruguayan after a long period of time injured. From midfield, the battle seemed to be between veteran and ever-present Sergio Busquets and Athletic Club’s gem Oihan Sancet. Long legs but a lot of quality in their boots. However, by Busquets’ side, the interiors seemed to be contributing very little to the overall play. Arthur Melo, more and more linked with an exit to Juventus, failed to be consistently relevant in what should have been a vital start for him. Meanwhile, the always energetic Arturo Vidal struggled when pressed by Athletic, and his arrivals into the opposing box no longer were as threatening and constant.
Athletic Club seemed to have Barcelona under control in the first half | Photo by Eric Alonso via Getty Images
With another goalless draw on the scoreboard, it did not look for Barça at the break. The three points were desperately needed after losing the top spot to Real Madrid in the weekend. Something needed to change. For many, the changes were obvious: youth. Despite the high relevance of such duel, sometimes the youngsters can provide the needed spark of imagination. Nevertheless, Quique Setién decided to change nothing at half-time. Instead, he chose to wait for the minutes to go by. Ten later, in the 55th, it was time for Riqui to come on.
Aggressive on and off the ball, proactive, intentional, lively. The positivity, verticality, clarity, vision, technique and situational awareness from Riqui Puig was a breath of fresh air for Barcelona. The rhythm completely changed with him on the field. No longer lethargic, the locals became far more dynamic and purposeful. That said, the team continued to search for the goal, and that’s why Ansu Fati and Iván Rakitić replaced Antoine Griezmann and Sergio Busquets soon after. Their presence, again, was extremely noticeable since the first minute they were subbed on. Ansu enjoyed a big chance at first, but it was Rakitić who, keeping with his extraordinary form after the coronavirus break, found the net.
“We are very happy. The progress is there, but there are always things to improve. What we have to do now is win everything until the end of season”
Acting as the pivot, he awarded himself the freedom to go forward, press, help in recovering the ball and then receive a delicate pass from Lionel Messi to strike the ball past Unai Simón. Relief. Barça couldn’t drop more points, but, thankfully, they didn’t. The Catalans shouldn’t be happy with their performance at all, in spite of a fifth consecutive clean sheet. Even so, wins seem to be what matter the most in this stage of the season, and some lessons can be learned from such fixtures too. Using youth never is a bad option. And substitutes can indeed win you leagues.
Player Ratings: Elche 0-2 Barcelona
With four wins in on the trot in the league, Ronald Koeman’s Barcelona marches on in the hope of overtaking Real Madrid who sit second, three points clear of the Garnet and Blue. Last night’s game against Elche was proof that Barça have what it takes to grind out wins in important games, even if their performance is less than convincing.
A goal each from Frenkie de Jong and Riqui Puig was enough to etch a 0-2 win for the visitors who will now travel to Madrid to lock horns against Rayo Vallecano in the Copa del Rey round of 16. Meanwhile, Barça Universal runs the rule over the Blaugranas.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen: 8
Barcelona’s captain without the armband continues to come up clutch for Barcelona in the six-yard-box, making stellar saves with each passing game. Yesterday, while the German made only two stops, one of them came post the 75th minute in a high-xG 1v1 scenario.
Oscar Mingueza: 7
Starting in unfamiliar territory, Mingueza coped well with the pressure at right-back. He was solid in the first half and did not let anyone go past him. Additionally, he did well in the attack, continuously whipping in crosses, although with little success. Had an error covered up by ter Stegen, but a solid display nonetheless.
Ronald Araujo: 7.5
Words have started to fall short for Araujo, who, yet again, was on his toes, ready to rescue Barcelona with each passing attack. The Uruguayan won three fouls while committing one himself, and lost possession only 4 times.
Samuel Umtiti: 8
Following his display against Granada, Umtiti got a well-deserved start after two weeks, and was pretty much faultless. A bit conservative in possession, the World Cup winner still managed to create one chance. Without the ball, he was a rock, and nobody was able to get past him on the night.
Jordi Alba: 6.5
The run of underwhelming displays continues for Jordi Alba, who ghosted on the night against Elche, especially in the attack. Did well out of possession, though, making two interceptions, one tackle, and a solitary clearance.
Frenkie de Jong: 9
De Jong woke up and chose violence. He started the game in amazing fashion, progressing the ball immaculately. Got a goal for his rewards, and then etched an assist to his name in the last few minutes, as well, with the most perfectly timed run and pass. Continues to be sensational.
Sergio Busquets: 8
Busquets has started to hold his own in the centre of the park in this formation and had another evening where he was nearly back to his best. The Spaniard conducted the midfield with ease, not allowing the Elche midfield to have the sniff of the ball. Additionally, he also managed to create one chance. Picked up a suspension, though, and will miss the outing against Bilbao.
At just 18, Pedri continues to astound the Barcelona fans, four-folding his standards with each passing game. Yesterday, as well, he made four key passes, completed all his dribbles (4/4), and won two set-pieces. Would have been a perfect night had he gotten an assist, only to be denied by his own overhit passes on two occasions.
Ousmane Dembele: 6
The attack was inarguably the most underwhelming part of Barcelona’s game last night, and understandably so, after playing an insane number of minutes in the past week. Dembele tried his best to get past the Elche defence, but with little to no success, as they stood firmly in place. Additionally, he lost possession a bizarre 21 times in just 74 minutes.
Antoine Griezmann: 6
Griezmann played through the centre on the night, as opposed to the left, where he has been deployed of late. Barring a single key pass for Araujo, the Frenchman did not do a lot, either. He made two great runs, but was denied a shot through poor communication between him and Pedri.
Martin Braithwaite: 6
Rounding off the lineup was Martin Braithwaite, starting on the left. Can be given credit for creating the goal through a brilliant cross, but was otherwise slow in possession, and unable to think on his feet.
Fransisco Trincao: 7
Credit where credit is due, this was probably Trincao’s best cameo for Barcelona. Just when it looked like Barcelona were getting hit back, the Portuguese brought freshness to the wing, and even hit two shots on target. Unfortunately for him, Edgar Badia pulled off two superhuman efforts to deny both his chances.
Riqui Puig: 7
The man of the hour!
Ideally, playing just five minutes would not amount to a 7/10 rating, but Puig practically sealed the game for Barcelona in the 89th minute, meeting de Jong’s cross over two defenders, and scoring his first-ever senior goal. A night he will never forget.