An Ivan Rakitić strike from inside the area on 71 minutes gave FC Barcelona the all-important victory over a resolute Bilbao on Tuesday night, as the Catalan giants went three points ahead of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
As fireworks sounded outside the Camp Nou due to the Catalan festivity of Sant Joan, it is fair to say there were no fireworks or sparkle on the pitch for FC Barcelona.
Before tonight’s game, the top of La Liga could not have been tighter. Thirty games into the season only two goals in the goal difference column separated Barça, from top of the table arch-rivals Real Madrid, who play Real Mallorca tomorrow evening.
The main objective was to win. The second aim was to win well, improve that goal difference and put pressure on Los Blancos. Quique Setién’s team selection reflected this with a forward line boasting Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann – all trusted goal scorers.
Here are five things we learned from the match…
Arthur struggles yet again as Ivan Rakitić proves doubters wrong
Speculation continues to surround midfielder Arthur Melo, as the Brazilian had a night to forget once again, as he was replaced by 20-year-old Riqui Puig 10 minutes after half-time.
Arthur is keen to remain at the Camp Nou beyond the summer, with Juventus continuing to run the rule over the 23-year-old. Setién should have included Rakitić in the starting XI given the fact he bred new life into a lacklustre Barça when entering on 65 minutes.
It took just seven minutes for the Croat to find the back of the net when Messi tried to control the ball in the box only for the experienced midfielder to fire past Unai Simon.
Rakitić, 32, has been linked with a move away from FC Barcelona, but he spared the Catalan giants’ blushes delivering when it mattered the most.
Antoine Griezmann’s Future Is In Doubt
It was always going to be difficult for the Frenchman to live up to his pricetag let alone the hype, and player he was at former club Atlético Madrid. It is clear his confidence is rocked and the 29-year-old was replaced by Ansu Fati midway through the second half. Since his arrival from the Wanda Metropolitano in an estimated €120million move, he has netted just eight times and registered four assists.
Messi is left to wait for his 700th career goal
With Messi turning 33 tomorrow, it would have been a remarkable present if he found the net this evening, he did not. He did, however, break another record. According to data company Gracenote, the assist for Rakitić’s goal was his 250th assist at the club.
The moment nearly arrived for the Argentinian when he drifted in from the right-wing before rifling a powerful drive wide of the post. He has been involved in one or more goals in his last 11 La Liga home games against Athletic – 10 goals and four assists.
Messi will have to wait until Saturday should he hit the landmark against Celta Vigo at Balaídos.
Ter Stegen saves Barça
Marc-André ter Stegen proved yet again why he is amongst one of the best goalkeepers in World football. The Germany international produced a ‘captain’s worthy’ performance once again.
The 28-year-old had to get down low to keep Unai Lopez’s cross out of his net and stop it finding the feet of striker Iñaki Williams. If Barça do go on to win the title at the end of the season, no doubt Messi will get the plaudits, but vital saves made by the German throughout the campaign will have not gone unnoticed.
Piqué proves why Setién needs a new centre-back
Despite keeping a clean sheet, the 33-year-old is begining to show his age at the back for the Catalan giants. Barça will have to dip into the transfer market as they look for a ready-made replacement for the long-serving defender.
Piqué pulled up towards the end of the match holding his groin, so it remains to be seen whether he will be fit for the weekend for the test against Celta Vigo.
FC Barcelona have youngster Ronald Araujo in their ranks but defenders such as Villarreal’s Pau Torres or Sevilla’s Brazilian star Diego Carlos are two names which have previously been mentioned.
All of the pressure now moves to tomorrow nights encounter between Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid who welcome Real Mallorca to the Santiago Bernabéu.