x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Draw shows off good work of Bielsa at Athletic Bilbao

The draw with Barcelona highlighted the impressive of Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic Madrid side.

The rain fell down on a stadium that does not do humdrum. The Basques of Athletic Bilbao attacked Barcelona with the confidence of a side who had gone nine games unbeaten, led by a coach whom Joseph Guardiola lists as one of his mentors.

The Argentine Marcelo Bielsa and the Catalan Guardiola embraced at the end of the most thrilling game in Spain so far this season. Guardiola described the 2-2 draw as the toughest "most intense" game he had ever been involved in - and he was not even playing.

Bilbao led 1-0 and then 2-1 on Sunday night. It was a gripping encounter on the washed out pitch, but Barca are not easily defeated and came back twice, the second time in the 91st minute when Lionel Messi scored an equaliser to maintain their unbeaten start to the season.

Bielsa, the brilliant, madcap coach of Athletic, was magnanimous as he said: "It wouldn't have been just if we had won the game. A draw is a fair result."

Xavi, the Barca midfielder, did not agree, claiming: "If any team deserved to win then it was us," before conceding that "Bilbao put in a great performance".

Athletic boast wonderful home-grown talents such as the Spanish internationals Iker Muniain, 18, Fernando Llorente, 26, and Javi Martinez, 23.

They have been supplemented by the €7 million (Dh35.4m) signing of attacking midfielder Ander Herrera, 22, (but looks 12). Herrera and Llorente were good enough to breach Victor Valdes's goal for the first time in (a Barca record) 897 minutes and, after a poor start to the season, Athletic are now 10 games unbeaten. They have defeated Atletico Madrid 3-0 and held Valencia away and Barcelona at home.

The Basques are also top of their group in the Europa League, with three wins and a draw from four games so far.

It is shaping up to be a good season for Athletic, but Barca are now three points behind Real Madrid - hardly a significant gap but the biggest margin they have trailed their great rivals by since Guardiola took over in 2008.

The Catalans have drawn four of their 11 games which is good for a league that people predicted would be a two-horse race from the start.

That is unlikely to change, but refreshingly the rest of the field are still within striking distance, even though the season is already 11 games old.

sports@thenational.ae