Barca made to sweat by Bilbao

Barca made to sweat by Bilbao

PATCHY: Lionel Messi suffered fitness issues in Barcelona's goalless draw against Athletic Bilbao. REUTERS

La Liga leaders Barcelona handed Real Madrid more hope in the title race as they drew 0-0 at Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, only avoiding defeat thanks to some outstanding saves by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

The Germany keeper twice thwarted forward Inaki Williams and kept out a stinging drive from Markel Susaeta in an intense and entertaining game in which the champions came under heavy pressure throughout.

Barca top the standings with 51 points after 23 games, six ahead of a resurgent Real Madrid.

With Lionel Messi hampered by a recent thigh problem and influential left-back Jordi Alba suspended, Barca were far from their usual best, creating few clear opportunities and ending the game defending deep as Bilbao continued to attack.

The impressive hosts were left frustrated by the sending off of Oscar de Marcos in added time for a second yellow card, but there was barely any time left for Barca to take advantage.

Barca coach Ernesto Valverde was still upbeat about his side's position in the title race, even though in the last nine days they have dropped four points.

"We come out of this week just like the last, we are still on top, and if my calculations are not wrong, we'll be on top next week," he told a news conference.

"This is a long season and we have to be on top at the end of it." 

Messi, who began in Wednesday's 1-1 draw at home to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semifinal first leg on the bench, was Barca's most dangerous outlet despite his obvious fitness issues.

He came closest to scoring for the visitors, sending a loose ball on to the top of the crossbar after Bilbao keeper Iago Herrerin fumbled on the edge of the area.

"Leo is fine, he played feeling 100 per cent, we may have had difficulties, but the fact he played means he was ready," added Valverde, after his assistant Jon Aspiazu had said before the game that the Argentine was not yet fully fit.

Sevilla rally 

Sevilla rallied to snatch a 2-2 draw at home to Eibar on Sunday, having been two goals behind, down to 10 men and facing a third consecutive defeat in all competitions, as they boosted their chances of finishing in the top four in the league.

Sevilla midfielder Pablo Sarabia slid in from close range to equalise in stoppage time and provoke wild celebrations at the Sanchez Pizjuan three minutes after striker Wissam Ben Yedder had halved the deficit for the hosts.