When Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona are bad, some of their players dig deeper into the worst of themselves.
It felt that way at the San Mames on Sunday night, during a spiky 0-0 draw against Athletic Bilbao which was high on tension and low on quality.
Arturo Vidal was more chaotic than usual, giving one ball away in a dangerous position and skewing another pass high and wide of its target, out of play.
Philippe Coutinho was quieter than ever, appearing once in the first half to mis-control a ball on the edge of his own area, and fading back into obscurity immediately after.
Luis Suarez, by contrast, was as loud as ever, but with his mouth, not his boots, complaining and screaming in faux agony after being clipped by a Bilbao player. That act grew old long ago.
The Uruguayan hitman is in poor form and while that can usually be hidden by his close friend and attacking associate Lionel Messi spoon-feeding him chances, even the Argentine is below his best at the moment.
That is purely down to fitness, with a niggling thigh injury he sustained in last weekend’s 2-2 draw at home against Valencia still causing him problems after his sublime run of form. Against Athletic the Argentine was incapable of firing on all cylinders.
Messi was benched for the midweek Spanish Cup Clasico, appearing as a substitute but not having a decisive impact in the 1-1 draw with Real Madrid.
The forward was back in the starting line up here even though Valverde’s assistant Jon Azpiazu said before the game he was not 100 percent fit.
Barcelona decided to take a risk because they have a rare midweek off and their next league match is at home against minnows Real Valladolid.
Even with the No 10 below his quicksilver best there were still flashes of genius, including a delectable lob from distance which hit the crossbar.
Messi was at once lightyears away from his own peak and yet the only source of any attacking joy for the Catalans on a night to forget.
Of course the dual absences of Jordi Alba through suspension and Arthur, injured, hurt the champions. The former returns next weekend but the latter is out for a month and they must learn to cope without the Brazilian.
One player who is rarely bad, though, is goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Ter Stegen endured arguably his worst night as a Barcelona player at the San Mames, a brutal 4-0 defeat by Athletic in the Spanish Super Cup in August 2015, when Mikel San Jose scored from the centre-circle against him.
Since then it’s almost as if he’s vowed never to leave this stadium feeling disappointed with himself again.
In October 2017 he made a string of brilliant saves to keep Athletic at bay as Barcelona won 2-0 away and tonight he was huge again.
The German produced a spectacular save to pry Markel Susaeta’s vicious, dipping effort away from goal and blocked Inaki Williams’s close-range effort when it seemed the strike was poised to win it for the hosts.
“Ter Stegen was sensational,” said Athletic coach Gaizka Garitano. “They have a great goalkeeper who made two great saves.”
With Barcelona struggling to keep the ball Valverde eventually ceded and replaced Vidal with Carles Alena, the Barca youth product he doesn’t exactly trust but also knows he must use.
The coach never seems particularly keen to turn to La Masia players but understands the demands of being Barcelona coach require it.
With Alena on the pitch they were a little improved and found some control, but it was not enough to take more than a point.
The draw means Barcelona sit six points clear of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, a nice cushion, but for the second week in a row they have dropped points.
While Real Madrid are hitting top form at just the right time, Barcelona appear to be losing momentum.
The return of Ousmane Dembele may help with that, the Frenchman appearing in a late cameo in the final stages after injury, along with Messi recovering his fitness, and this might be just a blip, but it will certainly be a worry for Valverde.
Source : Goal.com