Barcelona could afford to substitute Lionel Messi as their second string produced the goods in a 3-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.
Yeray Alvarez started in the heart of Athletic’s defence, less than two months after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Barca, meanwhile, named a second-string XI that saw Paco Alcacer handed a rare opportunity in Luis Suarez’s absence.
Just two minutes in, Andre Gomes was turned by Raul Garcia near the penalty area, but the midfielder’s low shot was tipped onto the post by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Inaki Williams was Los Leones’ lone striker over Aritz Aduriz, and his pace was a constant thorn for the Catalans throughout the first half.
The attacker was all on his own near Barca’s penalty spot in another massive chance for Athletic, but he failed to guide his free header on target and the visitors were left to rue their wastefulness.
Arda pressed to win the ball back, laying off Aleix Vidal, who picked out Neymar down the left. The Brazilian then sidestepped his marker before pulling back for Alcacer, who unleashed a first-time toepoke past Gorka Iraizoz for his first La Liga goal in Blaugrana.
Athletic were almost gifted a goal back when Pique suddenly lost the ball right on the edge of his own box, before pulling down his opponent out of desperation, although Gomes got back just in time so the defender wasn’t the last man.
Barca’s midfielders offered next to no protection for their fellow defenders, as seen by Samuel Umtiti passing straight to Garcia. The midfielder’s first-time drive from the D, however, was saved down low by Ter Stegen.
Williams proceeded to get around the back of Barca’s defence and approach Ter Stegen’s near post, but his close-range finish was pushed away.
It paved the way for Messi to score his third free kick of 2017 against Athletic, the Argentine curling the ball through the palms of Iraizoz and into the back of the goalkeeper’s net.
Moments later, Neymar sped into the box, leaving the Athletic defence in his wake, but his side-footed finish went just wide of the far post.
The introduction of Javier Mascherano at half-time seemed to solidify Barca, who should’ve gone 2-0 up shortly after the restart. Arda squared the ball for an unmarked Rafinha right next to the far post, but the midfielder’s header bounced just wide.
Rafinha then left the pitch with a bandage around his head after he took a blow from Ter Stegen, the two having vied for an incoming ball in the box.
Back at the other end, Messi forced Iraizoz into a save at his near post, while Yeray – on his return – made a perfectly-timed, hooked tackle on the No 10 to dispossess him just before he jinked into the box.
Messi was all smiles as he was subbed off with half an hour to go and replaced by Sergi Roberto. From that, Vidal took the ball down, pulled to his left and shanked a half-volley past Iraizoz.
Barca were exploiting the spaces left behind by Athletic with devastating ease as substitute Javi Eraso had the Basques’ only chance for the remainder of the match, his shot rolling wide of Ter Stegen’s far post, despite being away in the clear.
Arda almost assisted a fourth goal when he shimmied his way through the middle before threading through Vidal, who only had Iraizoz to beat, but the full-back’s shot was pushed away.
The result leaves Barca provisionally one point behind League leaders Madrid, who may have two games in hand if their trip to Celta Vigo is, as expected, postponed.
Barcelona 3-0 Athletic Bilbao
Alcacer 18, Messi 40, Vidal 67
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Vidal, Pique (Mascherano 46), Umtiti, Mathieu; Arda, Gomes, Rafinha (Rakitic 54); Messi (Sergi 64), Alcacer, Neymar
Athletic Bilbao: Iraizoz; Lekue (Aduriz 52), Yeray, Laporte, Balenziaga; San Jose (Benat 59), Iturraspe; De Marcos, Garcia (Eraso 74), Muniain; Williams
Referee: Gonzalez Gonzalez