Barcelona’s prospects of staying an entire Primera Liga season unbeaten became ever more likely as they made light work of struggling Athletic Bilbao last night at Camp Nou, with first half goals from Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi guiding them to a 2-0 triumph.
Spain’s league leaders only have nine games to play and they are on a roll at home and in Europe, with attendances surging – the 84,053 against Athletic was the second biggest of the league season.
Barca dominated from the start as Messi, who had scored from free-kicks in his previous three league starts, hit a fourth minute free-kick just over the bar.
Messi was involved in Alcacer’s seventh minute opener, feeding Jordi Alba the ball in their productive link down the left.
Alba, with more assists than any defender in Spain this season, crossed low for the former Valencia man to side foot past talented goalkeeper Kepa.
Messi made it two after 30 minutes, curling a left foot shot into the bottom corner after Paulinho had passed wide to Ousame Dembele for the Frenchman to centre to Messi outside the box.
Messi’s shadow boxing celebration was an unusual bit of flamboyance from him.
The goal came from Dembele’s fourth assist of the season. That is the same number as Cristiano Ronaldo and Toni Kroos at Real Masrid - and not a bad return given he’s only started five games after being injured.
Slowly, he is looking like a very good player in Barca’s colours and he was given an ovation by the home supporters when he was substituted.
Andres Iniesta would replace him to another warm reception – fans want him to stay another season rather then completed a rumoured move to China.
Paulinho hit the post after 43 minutes, sweeping a shot from the edge of the penalty area. After an earlier effort from Philippe Coutinho, it was the third time in the game Barca had hit the woodwork and the 38th time this term.
Athletic, in 14th and with only eight wins from 28 games, were a sorry sight. With their best strikers Inaki Williams and Aritz Aduriz on the bench, they did not manage a single first half shot to Barca’s 12.
Knocked out of the Europa League midweek after home and away defeats to Marseille, they at least lasted until March in that competition.
In the Copa del Rey, they were eliminated after a humiliating November home defeat to Formentera, a club so small that their average crowd is in three figures.
They miss Ernesto Valverde, their former coach who moved to Barcelona last year. Valverde had joined Athletic having been fired by Valencia in 2013. He immediately led then to a fourth place and the Uefa Champions League – high enough for Barcelona to offer him the job.
He turned then down since he wanted to honour his contract in Bilbao.
Valverde led Athletic to seventh, fifth and seventh in his three subsequent seasons and to a first trophy in 35 years when they won the 2015 Spanish Super Cup.
Valverde, who has excelled so far at Barca since taking over in the summer, had Athletic punching above their weight, but his replacement Jose Angel Ziganda is unlikely to be in charge at the start of next season.
Valverde will almost certainly be at Camp Nou and, judging by the way his side are positioned in the Primera Liga, the Champions League and in the Copa del Rey final, he should be starting it with more than one trophy to his name.