Athletic Bilbao hold struggling Barcelona

DELIGHTED Athletic Bilbao’s players celebrate after Oscar de Marcos scored their first goal against Barcelona. REUTERS

La Liga champions Barcelona’s domestic struggles continued as they dropped points for the third game in a row, drawing 1-1 at home to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday after Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets had begun the match on the substitutes’ bench.

Substitute Munir El Haddadi averted a first home defeat for Barca in more than two years by sliding in an equaliser in the 84th minute, meeting a cross by Messi who had been sent on along with Busquets in the second half as Barca chased the game.

Lead

Oscar de Marcos had given Athletic a deserved lead in the 41st minute with a volley after Inaki Williams had missed two clear chances to score for the Basque side.

Despite drawing at home to Girona and losing at minnows Leganes after starting without key first-teamers such as Luis Suarez, Jordi Alba and Samuel Umtiti, Barca coach Valverde made the eye-catching decision to field a team without midfield anchor Busquets and all-time top scorer Messi. The coach said the pair needed some rest to cope with a crammed schedule, with Barca visiting Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League next week.

“I have to judge the games we have coming up and we have four games in the space of 10 days, I have to think about what might happen and I thought Leo and Busquets had to rest, knowing that we have a very tough game on Wednesday,” Valverde told a news conference.

The Catalans made a strong start and had an early penalty appeal waved away when Philippe Coutinho went over in the area but Athletic soon started to put their stamp on the game.

Barca had sporadic chances down the other end, as Suarez struck wide from a free kick and was then thwarted by goalkeeper Unai Simon at point blank range, but Athletic made it third time lucky when De Marcos slid to convert Markel Susaeta’s cross.

Messi was brought on 10 minutes into the second period and Barca’s play instantly improved.

Athletic’s resistance finally caved in when Munir turned in Messi’s low cross and Ivan Rakitic had a final chance to win it late on for the Catalans, but sent the ball flying over the bar.

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Athletic Bilbao hold struggling Barcelona

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