Luis Enrique made it 100 wins as Barcelona Coach in the quickest-ever time thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao in La Liga on Sunday.
The Marc-Andre ter Stegen era began as he made his first La Liga start for Barca on merit as Mikel San Jose and Raul Garcia made way for Javi Eraso and Ander Iturraspe in Athletic’s only changes.
Ter Stegen’s preference to play the ball short to his defenders and Athletic’s high pressing made for a shaky start as his defenders were put under intense pressure, one instance of which was easily read by Benat. However, the midfielder blasted his effort straight at the German.
Nonetheless, the Catalans carved out the game’s first chance through Denis Suarez, who was unmarked when he received Lionel Messi’s volleyed pass in the box after Luis Suarez’s initial pass was blocked, but the midfielder could only blaze his curling effort over the crossbar.
Moments after Barca’s first warning shot, they had the ball in net through Arda Turan from Suarez’s cutback across an empty net, but the pair along with Messi were a yard offside when the original pass was floated into the Athletic area.
Still, the champions proceeded to break the deadlock as Mikel Balenziaga completely lost his man at the far post when Arda whipped a pinpoint cross towards the far post, an unmarked Rakitic ghosting in to power home a header.
Athletic, however, were never out of contention and maintained their thirst for high pressing and possession as the half wore thin. Markel Susaeta teed up Aritz Aduriz for a clear shot on the edge of the Barca box, but the striker’s daisy-cutter was seen all the way by Ter Stegen, who then kept out a swerving Benat Etxebarria drive.
Frustratingly for Los Leones, they were on the receiving end of some devastating transition play from Barca, Messi having sprung the hosts’ offside trap and glanced a long ball on target with his head, although Gorka Iraizoz acrobatically pushed it away.
The Catalans, though, should’ve entered the break two to the good as Arda was found unmarked in the Athletic box, albeit at a tight angle, but could only toe-poke the ball into side-netting.
The second half saw more of the same but with more control on Barca’s part as they adapted to Ter Stegen’s short-passing ways, resulting in the custodian making 46 successful passes – the most from a La Liga player in his position since the 2005-06 season.
Suarez got things restarted by laying the ball off to Messi in the Athletic D, the latter then shifting it onto his left foot and dragging a couple of Leones out of position, but his low drive flew inches wide.
Raul Garcia subsequently fired a shot inches wide of Ter Stegen’s left-hand post as the German pulled off another wise stop moments later, this time compensating for more poor Barca defending to keep out a close-range strike.
Athletic weren’t done yet as Ter Stegen was statuesque between the sticks when Benat curled a free kick into the side-netting, but it was one-way Barca traffic after that.
Arda clipped through Suarez with the deftest of balls forward, the No 9 then holding off both Basque centre-backs and picked out the late run of Messi, who feinted his marker but couldn’t keep down his shot.
Two more chances fell to Suarez before the final whistle, but the striker blazed a Sergi Roberto cross wide from inside the penalty area on the volley and then shot straight at the man on Iraizoz’s line from point-blank range after Messi teed him up near the penalty spot.
Athletic Bilbao 0-1 Barcelona
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Boveda, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe (Vesga 62), Benat; Williams, Eraso (Garcia 62), Susaeta (Muniain 76); Aduriz
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Sergi, Pique, Umtiti (Mascherano 71), Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Denis (Gomes 71); Messi, Suarez, Arda (Rafinha 84)
Referee: Mateu Lahoz