Magical Messi pulls Barcelona through battle in Bilbao

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/lionel-messi/" data-ylk="slk:Lionel Messi">Lionel Messi</a> scored in <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/teams/barcelona/" data-ylk="slk:Barcelona">Barcelona</a>’s victory over Bilbao, but one of his misses was almost more impressive. (Getty)
Lionel Messi scored in Barcelona’s victory over Bilbao, but one of his misses was almost more impressive. (Getty)

Lionel Messi did some remarkable things on a soccer field on Saturday. He also scored the goal that beat Athletic Bilbao and kept Barcelona four points clear at the top of La Liga.

And yes, the goal was fantastic. It was the only one on an eventful evening at San Mames until Paulinho sealed a 2-0 victory in stoppage time. But the 90 minutes brought so much more than just Messi’s match-winning moment.

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They brought everything Athletic had to offer, and then some. The hosts had their fans jumping out of their seats every few minutes, only to send them sinking back down in disappointment with lackluster finishing. They had Barcelona wasting time, and holding on for dear life, clutching its 1-0 lead with diminishing strength. The final whistle offered a timely reprieve.

And Bilbao very easily could have been in front in the first place. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was immense in the Barcelona net. He twice kept the game at 0-0 with saves from Aritz Aduriz, the second in a one-on-one:

Barcelona had startlingly little control over the game, especially in the second half as Athletic pressed for an equalizer. The hosts were relentless in that pursuit. But they were denied time and time again by the German keeper, and as they threw everything at their Catalan visitors, they left themselves exposed at the back:

It was fitting, though, that the match more or less ended with Messi charging at the Bilbao defense, the ball – and the entire game – on a string at his feet. He was his usual dazzling self, and very nearly scored a mind-blowing goal mid-way through the first half:

He was both conductor and creator throughout the night, setting up chances for himself, for Luis Suarez, for Paulinho and Andre Gomes. He started and finished the move that was the difference in the game, but it was only part of his brilliance.

That brilliance was the difference in the game, as it often is for Barcelona. The league-leaders are no longer the machine they once were. With a reconfigured and relatively underwhelming midfield, they no longer can waltz to comprehensive victories against every mid-table opponent.

But they do still have Messi. And even at 30, he’s still Messi.

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