• La Liga

Barcelona fight back to keep La Liga hopes alive

ESPN staff
April 20, 2014
Lionel Messi scored the winning goal from a free-kick © Getty Images

Two goals in three minutes saw Barcelona come from behind to end a run of three straight defeats, but a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao could only paper over so many cracks at the Nou Camp.

Barcelona are now four points behind league-leaders Atletico Madrid and two ahead of Real Madrid, but the latter have a game in hand over the top two.

A crowd of barely more than 30,000 suggested the locals had already made their mind up about the under-pressure Gerardo Martino, and his players did not do much to make his case as they struggled to muster their usual cutting edge until they had fallen behind.

Aritz Aduriz had already missed two outstanding chances to score before he put Bilbao ahead in the 50th minute, and it was not until the 72nd that Barca found a somewhat fortunate equaliser through Pedro.

Having done that, they needed only two minutes for Lionel Messi to give them the lead.

Even so, this was far from vintage stuff.

The first clear chance went Bilbao's way as the ball was slipped through to Aduriz in the ninth minute, but his low shot was turned away by Jose Pinto at his near post.

Barca, low on confidence, were subdued with only the occasional flash of their usual attacking brilliance.

Pedro raced straight through on goal but his weak shot was straight at the goalkeeper.

Lionel Messi tried next but was also denied by Gorkan Iraizoz.

The Argentinian had the ball in the net in the 18th minute but it was rightly ruled out for offside.

Aduriz was then denied what would have been a glorious goal, making fantastic contact with an overhead strike only for the ball to rebound off the post. It fell directly to Markel Susaeta but Pinto palmed his shot clear.

Moments later, Alexis Sanchez spurned Barca's best chance, striking the crossbar when it looked easier to turn Pedro's cross into the net.

Barca's frustration was mounting as shots from Sanchez and Pedro went straight at Iraizoz from decent positions.

Things then got worse five minutes into the second half when Aduriz capitalised on a Marc Bartra mistake to grab the lead for the visitors - the fifth time in the last six competitive games that Barca have conceded the first goal.

Bartra mis-controlled and the Bilbao man whipped the ball away to run towards goal, checking inside before firing into the bottom right-hand corner of the goal.

It might have been worse three minutes later when Susaeta blasted the ball home but was denied by a contentious offside decision, with the ball appearing to have come off Javier Mascherano - with a hint of handball to boot.

If they were riding their luck at one end, they were still having none at the other.

A decent shot from Pedro was turned away by the outstretched leg of Iraizoz before Messi summed up their frustrations by missing what should have been a routine chance to score from a few yards out.

But their fortunes were soon to change - indeed, their equaliser was almost entirely down to luck.

Dani Alves rode two challenges before pulling the ball back to Sanchez, who scuffed his shot but in doing so inadvertently played the perfect pass for Pedro to turn it in from a couple of yards.

Bilbao had barely regrouped when Messi ran at the heart of the defence. He bounced back up from an Oscar De Marcos challenge to shoot at goal, but after Iraizoz saved the referee pulled play back for a free-kick and a booking for De Marcos.

This time Messi made no mistake with a low shot into the left-hand corner, completing the turnaround inside three minutes.

Cristian Tello had a late chance to add a third after a fine run, but after riding one challenge, his shot was weak and was stopped short of the line by a defender.

If that was a wasted chance to put the game to bed, it almost proved very costly, with Mascherano making a crucial block to deny Mikel Rico at point-blank range.

It was a reminder of how fragile this Barca side still looks right now. The win keeps them alive in the title race, but on this showing the four-point gap to Atletico looks massive.

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