Tuesday, October 23

La Liga

TIMELINE

Live Commentary: Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Relive Barcelona's 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao as first-half goals from Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi send Ernesto Valverde's side 11 points clear at the top.

Barcelona moved 11 points clear at the top of the La Liga table courtesy of a comfortable 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou this evening.

The hosts did the damage during a devastating first-half display which saw Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi get on the scoresheet, with Barca also hitting the woodwork three times in the opening 45 minutes.

That allowed Ernesto Valverde's side to take their foot off the pedal in the second half as they cruised to victory, taking them another step closer to a seventh title in 10 years.

Find out how all of the action unfolded courtesy of Sports Mole's minute-by-minute updates below.

Good afternoon! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole for today's La Liga clash between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou!

This will be a particularly special occasion for Ernesto Valverde as he takes on the team he has previously played for and managed, and victory would take the Barca boss another step closer to clinching the title in his first season at the club.

We will take a close look at both clubs shortly, but first let's check out the team news...

BARCELONA STARTING XI: Ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Rakitic, Paulinho, Coutinho; Dembele, Alcacer, Messi
BARCELONA SUBS: Cillessen, Iniesta, Digne, Andre Gomes, Aleix Vidal, Yerry Mina, Alena
ATHLETIC BILBAO STARTING XI: Arrizabalaga; Lekue, Nunez, Martinez, Saborit; Benat, San Jose, De Marcos, Garcia, Susaeta; Merino
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUBS: Iago Herrerin, Iturraspe, Williams, X Etxeita, Aduriz, Vesga, Cordoba
What can we make of those two teams, then?

Well, the headline as far as Barcelona are concerned is that Luis Suarez misses out this afternoon, with the Uruguayan serving a suspension for this match. His absence hands a rare opportunity to Paco Alcacer, who scored the last time Athletic visited the Camp Nou but does not get many chances to start in the league.

Indeed, this will be only Alcacer's seventh league start of the season, and he has big shoes to fill if he is to make up for the loss of Suarez today.

The only player to have scored more La Liga goals than Suarez this season is Lionel Messi, and the Argentine maestro returns to La Liga action today after missing last weekend's win over Malaga due to the birth of his third child.

That left Messi looking very fresh in midweek, and he was at his best to score two goals and register an assist in their 3-0 win over Chelsea, inspiring his side into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. He has 24 La Liga goals to his name this season too, so will once again be Barca's main dangerman today.

Completing that front three is Ousmane Dembele, and while Messi was celebrating his 100th Champions League goal for Barcelona in midweek, his assist also teed up a first Barcelona goal for Dembele.

Not many would have expected it to take until March for the Frenchman to open his account following such an expensive move last summer, but injuries have played a major part in that and Dembele will now be keen to push on and score plenty more goals for the Catalan outfit going forward.

Philippe Coutinho was ineligible for that Champions League win over Chelsea, but he returns to the starting lineup this afternoon as expected - one of three changes made by Ernesto Valverde to his side from that game.

Barcelona stalwarts Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets both miss out - the former dropping to the bench and the latter missing due to a toe injury which is expected to keep him sidelined for three weeks - as Coutinho and Paulinho both come into the side.

Sergio Busquets may not grab many headlines for Barcelona, but few would argue with Valverde's claim that he is the best in the world in his position so replacing him will be difficult for Barcelona, both today and looking ever further forward.

It will be interesting to see how they do that today as the midfield three all like to get forward whenever possible. Coutinho will certainly not be in the holding midfield role, while Paulinho's late surges into the box have been a feature of Barca's season so far, which could leave Rakitic as the one needing to be the most disciplined today.

As for Athletic, it is an interesting team selection from Ziganda as both Aritz Aduriz and Inaki Williams - two of their most dangerous attackers - are only named on the bench.

Aduriz is the club's top scorer in La Liga this season with eight goals, but he also sat out against Leganes last weekend so it is not a huge surprise that he returns to the subs today. Williams, however, was expected to be an important figure in the team today due to his threat on the counter-attack, so his omission is surprising.

Williams has been linked with Barcelona in the past and has five La Liga goals to his name this season, meaning that only one of Athletic's three highest scorers this term starts today - not exactly a show of much ambition from the visitors.

Raul Garcia is expected to be their main goal threat today then, having netted seven times already this term, although Merino leading the line will also hope to see a few chances fall his way against a Barca defence that has been very impressive this season.

Oscar De Marcos is expected to play in a more advanced position than he has been in recent weeks, and it is easy to see why considering he has had a hand in three goals in his last three league games for Athletic - scoring one and creating two more.

There are just two changes to the team which faced Leganes in their most recent La Liga game as Lekue and Merino start in place of Cordoba and Williams.

It is hard to blame Athletic Bilbao for what looks like a fairly cautious team selection today as not too many teams would come to the Camp Nou and try to attack Barcelona - certainly not when the hosts are in this sort of form.

The football they have been playing under Valverde is not quite as easy on the eye as the glory years under Pep Guardiola, but they are still picking up results and it would take an unlikely and dramatic collapse for them to fail to win the title for the seventh time in the past 10 years this season.

Barcelona come into this match with an eight-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid - an advantage they could temporarily extend with victory here as Atletico are not in action until later today.

Just as satisfying for the Barca fans will be their 15-point lead over bitter rivals Real Madrid, who are also not in action until later today. Los Blancos - who are the defending champions, remember - could begin their match against surprise package Girona this evening a full 18 points adrift of the La Liga leaders.

While Real Madrid have been poor on the domestic front this season, credit must of course also go to Barcelona for such a sizeable margin between the two teams, with Valverde yet to taste defeat in La Liga as manager of the team.

Barca are the only team in Europe's top five leagues yet to lose a game this term, and stretching back to last season they are now unbeaten in their last 35 top-flight games, winning 29 of those in a run which goes back to April 8 of last year.

We all know about Barcelona's attack - which has scored more goals than any other in La Liga this season - but the most notable improvement Valverde has made during his time in charge is Barcelona's defensive record, with the Catalan outfit having kept 17 clean sheets in their 28 league games so far this season.

Only Atletico Madrid have managed more clean sheets and conceded fewer goals, with the partnership of Pique and Umtiti at the back proving to be Barca's most reliable in quite some time.

Across all competitions Barcelona are unbeaten in their last 15 games since losing to Espanyol in the Copa del Rey, although even that defeat was essentially meaningless as Barca still progressed past their city rivals to keep their hopes of a treble alive.

Indeed, that Espanyol defeat is Barca's only reverse in their last 45 matches across all competitions, the most recent of which saw them progress into the quarter-finals of the Champions League at Chelsea's expense in midweek. Having also reached the final of the Copa del Rey and boasting such a commanding lead at the top of the table, yet another treble for Barca looks increasingly likely.

Barcelona have been particularly impressive here at the Camp Nou this season, where they are unbeaten in 21 games since opening the campaign up with defeat to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup. Nineteen of those 21 games have ended in victories, while that loss to Madrid is their only Camp Nou defeat in their last 48 outings here - a run which stretches back to September 2016.

What's more, Barca have now kept four clean sheets in their last five home outings and an impressive 15 throughout the campaign from only 22 matches in front of their own fans.

In La Liga alone Barcelona's unbeaten home run stretches back 30 games to September 2016, winning 25 of those since a 2-1 defeat to Alaves. Indeed, the Blagrauna have won five of their last six and, remarkable 23 of their last 25 league games here.

Valverde's side have dropped just four points at the Camp Nou so far this term to boast the best home record in the division as one of only two teams - alongside Atletico - yet to taste home defeat. Barca also have the best attacking record in the division when it comes to home games, while only Atletico have conceded fewer on their own patch.

This is now Valverde's patch, of course, but for a long time Athletic Bilbao could boast him as their manager, and they have so far struggled to adapt to losing him to Barcelona last summer.

Valverde spent six years as an Athletic Bilbao player - incidentally after joining from Barcelona - going on to make 170 league appearances for the club. He then went on to spend six years with the club as manager over two spells - and an additional year as assistant - including four seasons at the helm prior to his 2017 departure.

Valverde led Athletic to four consecutive finishes of seventh or higher, but they come into this match sitting 12th in the standings and in danger of suffering their lowest finish since 2012-13, when they ended the campaign in the same position they find themselves in now.

Not since 2008-09 have Athletic finished lower than 12th and, while they are still five points closer to the top six than they are to the relegation zone, it has been a very disappointing campaign for them so far.

Speculation has unsurprisingly begun to surface regarding the future of manager Jose Angel Ziganda, particularly following Athletic's Europa League exit at the hands of Marseille in midweek.

The Spanish outfit had plenty to do after losing the away first leg 3-1, but they then fell two goals down in Thursday's second leg at home to completely kill the tie off. Williams did pull a consolation goal back, but ultimately they went down 5-2 on aggregate.

Including those defeats in both legs of their Europa League last 16 tie, Athletic have now won just one of their last five games across all competitions. Indeed, the dip in form stretches back further than that with only three wins in their last 14 since January 7, drawing five and losing six in that time.

Athletic had won five and lost just one of their 10 matches prior to that recent record, so it is an alarming drop off in form which has seen them sink into the bottom half of the table.

Athletic have also only won two of their last 10 La Liga games, with three defeats in their past seven having gone unbeaten in 10 prior to that - albeit with that run including seven draws.

A victory this afternoon, however unlikely it may seem, would see them string together successive league wins for the first time since either side of the winter break and only the third time all season, having beaten Leganes last time out.

A trip to the Camp Nou is difficult at the best of times, though, so Athletic's run of three successive away defeats - and only one win in seven - coming into this match is far from ideal.

Another defeat this afternoon would see them fall to four in a row across all competitions for the first time in more than a year, and also four La Liga away defeats on the spin for the first time since October 2014. Athletic have failed to even score in their past three defeats, so it is looking pretty bleak for them today.

Seven of Athletic's nine league defeats this season have come away from home, where they have also only won three of their 14 games. On top of that they have kept just two clean sheets on the road, which is one of the worst records in the division. Compare that to their defensive record at home, where only Atletico have kept more clean sheets this season, and it is clear where Athletic's main problems lie.

As if that wasn't enough, Athletic have also lost their last eight away games and 20 of their last 21 against Spain's big three.

PREDICTION: Right, we're 10 minutes away from kickoff at the Camp Nou, which means that it is time for a prediction!

It is hard to see past a Barcelona win this afternoon, with the hosts in such good form and Athletic far from it. Barcelona haven't been blowing teams away with regularity this season, so this won't quite go into the realms of a rout, but it should still be a comfortable victory.

SPORTS MOLE SAYS: Barcelona 3-0 Athletic Bilbao

Barcelona have won the last three meetings between these two sides, including each of the last two without conceding - scoring five goals in the process.

Indeed, Barca have also won eight of the last nine meetings across all competitions, and in La Liga alone they are on a dominant eight-game winning run against Athletic Bilbao.

You have to go back to December 2013 for Athletic Bilbao's most recent league victory over Barcelona and, while they have experienced some cup success against them more recently than that, in the league there has only been one dominant force in this fixture.

The most recent of those meetings came in October, when Lionel Messi and Paulinho were on the scoresheet in a 2-0 victory.

Athletic have had even less joy when you consider just the meetings between these two sides here at the Camp Nou, with their last victory at this stadium coming way back in November 2001, when they ran out 2-1 winners.

Since then they have drawn four and lost 16 of their 20 visits, the most recent of which saw Paco Alcacer, Lionel Messi and Aleix Vidal all score in a 3-0 win for Barcelona last February.

Right, the players are out and we're almost ready to go at the Camp Nou! Let's have a quick reminder of the team news before kickoff...

BARCELONA STARTING XI: Ter Stegen; Sergi Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Rakitic, Paulinho, Coutinho; Dembele, Alcacer, Messi

ATHLETIC BILBAO STARTING XI: Arrizabalaga; Lekue, Nunez, Martinez, Saborit; Benat, San Jose, De Marcos, Garcia, Susaeta; Merino

KICKOFF: Here we go! Athletic Bilbao get us underway at the Camp Nou!
Rakitic is playing the Busquets role as expected, almost dropping in as a third centre-back in these early stages as Barcelona dominate the possession.
SAVE! Messi wins an early free kick and, of course, takes it himself. He gets it on target, but Kepa is across in good time to turn the effort over the crossbar.
Saborit swings a cross into the box which Ter Stegen comes to collect, before almost spilling the ball out of his own area when looking to launch a quick counter. Barca have settled into this game quickly.
GOAL! Barcelona 1-0 Athletic Bilbao (Paco Alcacer)
Well, it's a rare start for Paco Alcacer, and he takes full advantage by breaking the deadlock after only eight minutes!

It all looks far too easy for the hosts as Messi pokes the ball out to Alba, who immediately plays a low ball into the box. Alcacer is left completely unmarked and just steers his finish into the far corner to give Barcelona another quick start.

You have to worry for Athletic now. Barca look in complete control of this one and with that early goal it is looking very ominous for the visitors.
SAVE! Paulinho finds space just outside the area and immediately gets his shot away, but it is straight at Kepa who makes a fairly routine save.
San Jose is a lucky man here! He gives the ball away in a very dangerous position as Rakitic picks his pocket, with the ball bouncing to Messi of all people. The Argentine dances past a couple of defenders in the box, but his final touch is just too heavy and the ball gets away from him.
SAVE! Barcelona's pressure is really starting to grow again now! this time they come sweeping forward and Messi collects the ball just outside the area, but his low drive is well saved by Kepa.
SAVE! Kepa is again called into action here as he bats away another Messi effort, although on this occasion the striker should have perhaps looked to find Pique in the middle.
OFF THE BAR! Barcelona are inches away from doubling their lead as the chances continue to flow freely here! A ball over to the left side of the area finds Alba, who cuts it back for Coutinho. The Brazilian hits a brilliant first-time effort, but it crashes off the underside of the bar with Kepa well beaten.
Barcelona again come sweeping forward here as Coutinho plays a clever reverse pass to Alba, whose low pass into the box almost finds Messi but is just about dealt with by the defence.
YELLOW CARD! The first card of the game is shown to Umtiti following a scuffle from a corner.
The corner is eventually thrown into the box and Umtiti is again at the centre of things as he goes down under the challenge on Nunez. The referee says no penalty, but Umtiti had a good shout for one there.
Athletic finally seemed to have stemmed the tide of Barcelona chances in the last couple of minutes, but I suspect it may only be a temporary reprieve. It has been one-way traffic so far.
Almost another chance for the hosts as Dembele looks to be in behind the defence, but Kepa is out quickly and beats the winger to the ball. Important piece of defending from the keeper there.
We're midway through the first half now and Athletic Bilbao may just be happy that the deficit remains just one. They need to improve sooner rather than later, though, as if this continues then it surely won't be long before Barca add to their lead.
Barcelona have enjoyed more than 70% possession in this match so far, and the game has been played almost exclusively in the Athletic half too.
CHANCE! Barca are playing some Harlem Globetrotters-like stuff here! Messi lifts a delightful pass through for the overlapping Coutinho in the box, and he reaches the byline before cutting it back for Dembele. Dembele manages to get his shot away, but Kepa makes another important save before Messi is crowded out from the follow-up.
The only thing missing for Barcelona in this opening half an hour or so is another goal. They haven't always played party football despite their great results this season, but they are enjoying themselves out there today.
GOAL! Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao (Lionel Messi)
It has been coming! Barcelona double their advantage on the half-hour mark, and it is Messi who gets his name on the scoresheet for the 25th time this season.

Dembele's pass inside finds the Argentine in a bit of space right on the edge of the box, and he takes a touch before drilling a pinpoint finish into the bottom corner past Kepa. That could well be game over already.

This could be a question of how many Barcelona will get today. They have utterly dominated this match so far, and Athletic have been chasing shadows since the first whistle.
OFF THE BAR! This is just a joy to watch at the moment. Barca again come pouring forward as Alba tears down the left before Coutinho and Messi get in on the act. Messi drops it back to Paulinho, whose ball over the top finds Coutinho in the area, but he cannot get the ball over Kepa and back under the crossbar in time. Instead, it bounces off the top of the woodwork on its way over.
Messi is not happy after being brought down twice in quick succession, but getting nothing from the referee on either occasion.
This has been one of Barcelona's best footballing performances of the season, even if their lead is still 'only' two goals. They have been brilliant to watch so far today.
YELLOW CARD! Dembele goes into the book for a foul and subsequent dissent at the referee's decision.
YELLOW CARD! Stunning from Messi as he picks the ball up almost on the edge of his own area before racing to the halfway line, when Lekue is finally able to bring him down cynically. A deserved yellow card greets him.
Almost a chance for Barcelona again as Coutinho finds Messi on the edge of the area, only for the Argentine's strike to hit the back of his own player.
OFF THE POST! Barcelona hit the woodwork for a third time in this first half as this time it is Paulinho who is left in shooting space just outside the area. Dembele finds him, but Paulinho's curling effort strikes the outside of the upright on its way behind.
HALF TIME: Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Barcelona go into the break with a 2-0 lead over Athletic Bilbao, but that only tells half of the story as it could easily be six or seven for the home side, who have been brilliant today.

It has been one-way traffic from the very first whistle here at the Camp Nou, with Barca scoring twice and also hitting the woodwork on three occasions - not to mention the saves made by Kepa.

The opening goal arrived after only eight minutes, and it was all too easy for Barcelona as they cut through Athletic's defence en route to Paco Alcacer breaking the deadlock on a rare league start.

Messi played the ball out to Alba on the left side and, as has been the case on numerous occasions this season, Alba played a low ball into the box. Alcacer was left unmarked in the middle, and he applied a simple finish to steer the ball into the bottom corner.

Somehow Barcelona didn't manage to double their advantage until the half-hour mark despite completely dominating in the meantime, but Lionel Messi did eventually give them a thoroughly deserved two-goal cushion with a clinical finish.

Dembele played the ball in to the Argentine, who was left in too much space right on the edge of the area. Messi was able to take a touch before arrowing a pinpoint finish into the bottom corner.

Coutinho has also hit the crossbar twice, including with one brilliant first-time volley, while Paulinho has been denied by the post as well.

Barcelona have created shooting opportunities almost at will - which is why it is surprising that they only have a two-goal lead - but if it is a similar story in the second half then Athletic could be on the end of a hefty defeat here.

KICKOFF: Barcelona get us back underway for the second half, and the first thing to tell you is that Athletic have made a change at the break, with Ander Iturraspe replacing Benat.
SHOT! Athletic didn't have a single shot in the first half, but it has taken them less than a minute to correct that statistic in this second half as Lekue bundles his way forward before dragging his effort wide.
This has been a much better start to the half from Athletic, who have already looked more likely to score in this second half than they did at any point in the first.
Athletic have been better in this second half, but Barcelona have also been more sloppy than they were in the opening 45 minutes. Some complacency creeping into Barcelona's game, perhaps?
CHANCE! The visitors create their best chance of the match so far, although that is not saying much. Sabin Merino breaks forward and finds himself in a really good position, but he never looks particularly comfortable and drags his effort well wide.
Merino has another half sight of goal here as he carries the ball into the box, but Umtiti is with him all the way and blocks the resulting effort behind for a corner.
Messi is again hacked down from behind when coming forward as San Jose makes a desperate attempt to stop the Argentine. Barcelona have a free kick in a dangerous position here...
Messi's effort hits the wall, though, and his follow-up effort is also blocked. Athletic immediately look to counter, but Alba is back quickly and mops up the danger.
SAVE! Barcelona have their first sight of goal in this second half as Coutinho breaks in down the left channel, but his shot is straight at the keeper.
Barca have certainly taken their foot off the pedal since half time, which is a shame. The hosts were in scintillating form in the opening 45 minutes, but they seem content to settle for the two-goal lead now.
SHOT! Saborit strides forward down the left flank and goes for goal from range, but his effort is always rising and ends up going well over the crossbar.
Athletic Bilbao deserve credit for their improvement in this second half as they were so convincingly second best in the opening 45 minutes. Barca have definitely gone off the boil, but Athletic have played their part in that.
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUB: The visitors make another change here as Inaki Williams replaces Susaeta.
BARCELONA SUB: The hosts also make a change here as Dembele is replaced by Andres Iniesta, who as always gets a huge reception.
Barcelona have been in cruise control in this second half, but hopefully the introduction of Iniesta will help to raise Barca up to closer to their first-half standards.
Crucial piece of defending from Alba as he slides in and cuts out a pass from Williams in the box. Williams would have been clean through on goal had that beaten Alba.
Just 20 minutes remaining in this match now as Barcelona continue to coast in second gear. We have barely mentioned Messi in this second half.
ATHLETIC BILBAO SUB: A third and final change for the visitors as the evergreen Aritz Aduriz replaces Merino.
Barcelona's lethargy in this second half is actually quite a risky strategy as one goal for Athletic Bilbao would make things very interesting. The hosts may feel comfortable due to their first-half dominance, but there are still only two goals separating the sides.
BARCELONA SUB: The hosts make another change as Aleix Vidal replaces Alcacer.
As things stand, then, Barcelona are going 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid and 18 clear of Real Madrid too. The title is about to come one step closer.
Aduriz looks to be in behind the defence and Ter Stegen finds himself in no-man's land, but the linesman's flag is up. The replay suggests that it is the wrong decision, though.
Barca just knock the ball about amongst themselves, keeping possession for a long time here. The crowd gives them the 'Ole!' treatment, but I'm sure they wouldn't mind something closer to the first-half performance either.
SAVE! Messi does look to light up this second half as he cuts inside onto that deadly left foot of his, but his effort is deflected into the arms of Kepa.
Really good defending from Martinez as he steps in and wins the ball from a Messi in full flight inside the penalty area. Not an easy thing to do, but Martinez made it look simple.
BARCELONA SUB: A third change for Barcelona as Andre Gomes replaces Coutinho.
Ter Stegen comes to punch a free kick but does not get a great deal of distance on his clearance. It falls to an Athletic player inside the box, but the Barca keeper is saved by the offside flag.
SHOT! Brilliant again from Messi as he carries the ball from almost the halfway line into the Athletic box, working space to shoot but then firing his effort wide of the far post.
There will be two minutes of added time at the end of this match.
FULL TIME: Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
Well, the second half didn't exactly live up to the scintillating football we saw at times in the first, but it is job done for Barcelona as they march on towards the La Liga title.

Goals from Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi in the first half were ultimately enough to wrap up another three points, taking Barca 11 points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid and 18 above Real Madrid. A seventh title in 10 years is within their grasp now!

Right, that is all we have time for this afternoon!

Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole as Barcelona cruise past Athletic Bilbao to take another step towards the title. I will leave you with our match report, and be sure to stick around for any reaction too.

From me, though, it is goodbye for now!

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