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Drilling down on: at Barcelona 2, Athletic Bilbao 0

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel M

Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (C) vies with Athletic Bilbao’s defender Borja Ekiza (L) and Athletic Bilbao’s midfielder Javi Martinez (R) during the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao on March 31, 2012 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona. AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

Man of the Match: As much as I want to give this honor to one of Athletic’s defenders (the back line given three matches worth of decisions on Saturday), Andres Iniesta deserves the nod for not only powerfully putting Barça in front after 40 minutes but also orchestrating the champs’ relentless pressure in the absence of Xavi Hernández.

Packaged for takeaway:

  • Fatigue was decisive. While both sides have had full Copa runs and European competition pile on to their Primera campaigns, Barcelona looked as sharp and fresh as a team just beginning their campaign. Athletic, playing their 50th match of the season, seemed out on their feet after 30 minutes.
  • Until then, Athletic was doing a remarkable job of dealing with a fully in-form Barcelona. While Marcelo Bielsa’s midfield relentlessly pressured and pursued, Barcelona showed equal persistence, doggedly attacking an Athletic defense that kept coming up with last moment heroics.
  • Leading those heroics were center backs Javi Martínez and Borja Ezika, along with midfielder Ander Iturraspe. The trio was responsible for a number of crucial blocks, last gasp interceptions and desperation challenges that kept the match scoreless for 39 minutes.
  • Martínez, in particular, should be lauded. He had the main responsibility of keeping Lionel Messi in check and responded with three big first half blocks. Were it not for a borderline second half penalty drawn on him by Cristian Tello (one which led to Messi’s goal), Martínez would have been a clear man of the match.
  • The 2-0 final fails to do justice to either side. Athletic didn’t do anything going forward until very late but were defensively masterful against a Barcelona team that had to employ all the effort in its arsenal to wear them down. Against another team, Barcelona would have walked away with this match early. And were they not playing Barça, Athletic would have kept a clean sheet. For those 40 minutes until Iniesta scored, it was incredible.
  • Bielsa’s men were out on their feet after 30 minutes. Barcelona had just worn them down. For 10 minutes, you wondered if Athletic could get to half time and reload, but when Alexis tracked back into midfield, created a turnover and quickly got the ball to Lionel Messi, a gassed Athletic had almost no chance to stop the winning goal.
  • Both coaches rested players. Pep Guardiola kept Xavi out of his starting XI, while Bielsa started Fernando Llorente and Iker Muniain on the bench, apparently prioritizing Thursday’s return leg in Europa against Schalke.
  • Subtly awesome: Guardiola dressed to the nines while Bielsa showed up (again) in my dad’s sweats.