x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sigh of relief for Camp Nou

Pep Guardiola's men return to winning ways with a 2-0 win against Athletic Bilbao while title rivals Real are held to a 1-1 draw.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his 32nd minute penalty which opened the scoring for Barcelona in their 2-0 win against Athletic Bilbao.
Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his 32nd minute penalty which opened the scoring for Barcelona in their 2-0 win against Athletic Bilbao.

Crisis? What crisis? That's what people are asking in Barcelona today. On Saturday night, in front of a huge and nervous Camp Nou crowd, Pep Guardiola's side returned to winning ways by beating fellow King's Cup finalists Athletic Bilbao 2-0.

With Real Madrid failing to register an 11th consecutive victory by drawing 1-1 against neighbours Atletico, Barca increased their lead at the top of the Primera Liga to six points. The relief was tangible. Two defeats and a draw in their last three league games, combined with Madrid's unrelenting winning form, saw Barca's lead cut from 12 to four points. Yet such was the anxiety and media speculation that Barca had lost their nerve, it felt like the Catalans were four points behind Real and not four ahead.

In a trait of Spanish football, too many teams have capitulated from the moment their dominance seemed assured. Barca fell apart in 2007 to allow Real to win the league, while Real lost the league on the final day of the season twice in the 1990s. Like a pelaton swallowing up a leader in a cycle race, teams caught in sight of a chasing pack seem helpless. Guardiola was delighted with a vital home win, as much for the oints as for reassurance. Barca have been Spain's team this season and did not deserve to implode.

After their first win in six matches thanks to a 32nd-minute Lionel Messi penalty and Sergio Busquets's header, the coach said: "To play well and win like this should give the fans a little more faith in the team." Guardiola was right to mention the fans. At other clubs, fans support their team in the hope of entertainment and victory. At Barca, fans expect to entertained before they truly get behind the team. It creates a pressure cooker atmosphere at the Camp Nou. With 12 league games left, and more in the Champions League starting with Wednesday's home game against Lyon, the fans have to become the proverbial 12th man rather than the burden they had been.

No such criticism could ever be levelled at Atletico's die-hards. Spain's noisiest, their away following hardly needed encouragement to holler in the Bernabeu. Sergio Aguero set Diego Forlan up to put a dominant Atletico ahead before the break, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar levelled for Juande Ramos's side in the 57th minute. Forlan, Aguero and substitute Florent Sinama Pongolle missed second-half chances to prevent Atletico winning their first derby in a decade, with coach Abel Resino lamenting: "I'm pleased with the effort from the team, but it is a draw that feels like a defeat because of the chances we have missed."

With Barca winning, it felt like a defeat for Real too. amitten@thenational.ae