Lionel Messi’s value to Barcelona does not reduce with the passing of the years – they go into Wednesay’s Champions League group game with Tottenham relying on him more than ever.
They stumbled to a 1-1 draw against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou. Messi was left on the bench for almost an hour – he climed off it and saved the day setting up Munir El Haddadi for the late leveller.
It was no surprise that Valverde rested players but even those expecting changes were stunned to see Messi sat on the bench.
We thought that this was the moment to rest Messi,’ said the manager’s number two Jon Aspiazu. ‘We have the strength in depth so we want to make the most of it.’
There was not a lot of strength of depth on display in the first half as Barcelona fell behind to an Oscar de Marcos goal on 41 minutes.
Barcelona: (4-3-3) ter Stegen; Alba, Lenglet, Pique, Semedo; Rakitic, Roberto (Busquets 50), Vidal (Messi 54); Coutinho, Suarez, Dembele (Haddadi 79)
Unused subs: Vermaelen, Rafinha, Arthur, Cillessen
Goals: Haddadi (83)
Yellow cards: Rakitic, Busquets
Athletic Bilbao: (4-2-3-1) Simon; Marcos, Alvarez, Martinez (Nolaskoain 23), Balenziaga; Garcia, Etxebarria (Jose 66); Yuri, Garcia, Susaeta; Williams (Aduriz 80)
Unused subs: Oleaga, Lopez, Capa, Muniain
Goals: Marcos 40
Yellow cards: Alvarez, Garcia, Nolaskoain
Referee: Santiago Jaime Latre
The right-back picked a hole in Barça’s offside trap running onto a pass from Markel Susaeta, getting in behind Sergio Roberto, and finishing past Marc Andre ter Stegen.
It was the eighth goal conceded by Barcelona this season – they reached the halfway point of last season having only conceded nine goals.
It was not Athletic’s only chance either. Iñaki Williams went through but took too long to get his shot away from the edge of the six-yard box and was shepherded out to safety.
Barcelona had their chances too but Luis Suarez was missing his pal Messi. He had one chance running onto Nelson Semedo’s through ball but was foiled by Unai Simon in the Athletic goal. Suarez had tried to blast the chance through Simon’s legs but he denied the Uruguayan.
Simon would deny Suarez again before the break. This time the forward’s shot was aimed to creep in at the near post but the 21-year-old keeper, who has done such a good job of replacing Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga, made the stop once more.
Suarez turned provider just before half time when he crossed for Philippe Coutinho but the chance was not taken and Coutinho missed another chance after the restart
Five minutes into the second period things went from bad to worse when Sergio Roberto pulled up with a groin problem. He left his central midfield berth and Sergio Busquets, resting next to Messi, was brought on.
Roberto would have played at right back on Wednesday at Wembley and will now be a doubt to face Tottenham.
Messi was next to vacate the bench replacing Arturo Vidal 10 minutes into the second half. He provoked danger immediately although it was Coutinho who had the chance.
He hit the bar with a volley and as Suarez tried to contort his body to get something on the rebound he could only send it over.
Messi then played an impossible pass through the closed ranks of the Athletic defence to send Jordi Alba away. Messi ran onto the return pass volleying his shot onto the frame of the goal.
He was not to be denied and he created the equaliser out of nothing. He chased what looked like a dead ball with five minutes left. Stuck in the corner and with seemingly nothing on he carried it back infield and got a shot away. When Simon spilled it Messi was on the rebound in a flash and when he fizzed the ball across the face of the goal Munir El Hadaddi turned it in for the 1-1.
Barcelona barely deserved the draw but 35 minutes of Messi had been enough to salvage something from the game if not dispel the doubts about this Barcelona side going into the Spurs game at Wembley.