Liga - Athletic Bilbao test Martino's nerves as Barca make late comeback

La Liga, Nou Camp - Barcelona 2 (Pedro 72 Messi 74) Athletic Bilbao (Aduriz 50)

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SPAIN, Barcelona : Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona (AFP)

Barcelona moved within four points of Atletico Madrid in La Liga, and averted a fourth straight loss with a 2-1 victory over Athletic Bilbao.

Barcelona struggled to recover from their midweek defeat to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. With Neymar missing through injury, the focus fell on Lionel Messi to turn in a performance more reminiscent of past performances. He improved from his most recent showing, delivering some incisive passes, and setting Pedro up to slide a shot straight into the arms of Gorka Iraizoz.

Barcelona had other chances, and Messi himself scored at the far post from a brilliant Andres Iniesta cross, but he was just offside and the goal was disallowed. A minute later, Adriano had a low shot cleared off the line by Mikel Balenziaga. Alexis Sanchez hit the post from close range.

Athletic had chances of their own - despite the dour atmosphere created by plenty of empty seats - the teams were able to create chances at regular intervals. Aritz Aduriz hit the side netting in the early stages of the game, and then saw an overhead kick strike the post. Markel Susaeta had his rebound well saved by Pinto, deputising in goal for the injured Victor Valdes.

In his last five games at the Nou Camp, Ernesto Valverde had come away with four draws, and it looked like he would be getting away with at least a point once again.

In the second half, Aduriz shocked the Nou Camp when Marc Bartra tried to bring the ball down with his chest. Aduriz stole the ball, took a few touches into the box and sent a low shot into the corner. A fourth defeat was on the cards for Barcelona and as Bilbao celebrated, Barca slowly trudged back towards the halfway line. Bilbao thought they had a second, but Susaeta’s goal was chalked off for offside.

Barcelona almost equalised when Pedro sent a low shot on goal after a great pass from Xavi, but Iraizoz’s outstretched leg put it behind for a corner. On the hour, Messi uncharacteristically missed a one-on-one chance, dragging his shot a yard wide.

The equaliser came on 72 minutes, when Dani Alves found Sanchez after good work on the right, and Sanchez’s low shot was prodded home at close range by Pedro. Two minutes later, Barca had the lead when Messi fired in a free kick on the edge of the box, the keeper flapping at it when he should have punched it clear.

Barcelona threatened to score again, and Cristian Tello almost made it three when he slid a shot underneath the keeper, but it was underhit and cleared off the line. That made Mikel Rico’s shot that was cleared by a desperate lunge from Javier Mascherano all the more nerve-shredding.

Barcelona had failed to impress for much of the game, and it was more a matter of luck than skill that they had not conceded to Athletic in the first half. A loss for Barca might have seen Tata Martino sacked even before the end of the season, but after this comeback he might be able to hold onto his job for a while longer yet.

Bilbao are three points clear of fifth-placed Sevilla, who continued their fine recent run with a 4-0 victory at home to Andalusian rivals Granada on Sunday.

Celta Vigo pulled further away from danger when they won 4-2 at second-from-bottom Almeria, while basement side Real Betis are on the brink of relegation after they were beaten 3-1 at Rayo Vallecano.

MATCH IN A TWEET

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