100th Suarez goal, Neymar slump-buster and another Messi free kick push Barca past Athletic in Copa del Rey

Suarez and Messi celebrate Barcelona’s first goal. (Reuters)

Barcelona has won a game of soccer.

This tends to be an all-too-common occurrence. But it took the Catalans three attempts to register their first victory of 2017. Last Thursday, they lost the first leg of their Copa del Rey round of 16 tie with Athletic Bilbao 2-1 in a nutty game, in spite of their hosts going down to nine men.

On Sunday, it took a magical 90th-minute Lionel Messi free kick just to salvage a 1-1 draw at Villarreal in La Liga in another uncharacteristically disjointed performance. The Yellow Submarine perhaps deserved more.

On Wednesday, Barca finally ended the brief slump by beating Athletic 3-1 at home in the return leg to see Luis Enrique’s team through to the quarterfinals. But a superb Messi free kick was once again required to settle the thing, after Athletic had gotten an aggregate equalizer early in the second half that foretold extra time if the score stayed the same. That was Messi’s third free kick goal in three games, as Barca’s lone score in the first leg came from one of his set pieces as well.

Like in the first leg, Barcelona was predictably dominant. And players who have struggled for form lately – like Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Neymar and Luis Suarez – were a good deal sharper. Athletic, without the important Ander Iturraspe and Raul Garcia, both suspended from their first leg sending-offs, nevertheless mounted another valiant defense.

But in the 26th minute, Suarez was wrongly denied a goal. Neymar was called offside when he was played through Athletic’s back line, even though he wasn’t. His square ball had given his Uruguayan colleague a wide-open tap-in.

Not 10 minutes later, Messi found Neymar on the left, and the Brazilian lofted a deep cross at Suarez. He backtracked to properly line up for the ball and then unleashed a splendid scissor kick to put Barca ahead. It was his 100th goal for the club.


That goal made it 2-2 on aggregate and gave Barca the lead on its away goal. Just after halftime, Neymar would bag an insurance tally. He was knocked down in the box by Eneko Boveda and converted the penalty himself in the 48th minute. It was his first goal in just under three months.


The Basques would make a game of it, though. In the 51st minute, Sergi Roberto lost Enric Saborit on a cross, and the latter headed down well to beat backup goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.


Barcelona kicked into a higher gear and started creating more chances. But it took that Messi free kick to make the difference. In the 78th, he wrong-footed Gorka Irazoiz, sneaking his strike into the bottom right corner, just off the inside of the post.


There were opportunities aplenty for Barca to make the final score line look better than 3-1 (and 4-3 on aggregate). Neymar, newly confident, went on a mazy run but just missed at the near post. Suarez almost scored when he snuck the ball around Iraizoz but couldn’t keep it in play with an open goal. And substitute Denis Suarez had a clear look in front of goal after a patient Barca attack but blasted his shot over.

None of that will worry Luis Enrique too much. His team’s season had looked in danger of derailing within the first week of the year. Because the spilled points at Villarreal saw Real Madrid build out its league lead to five points with a game in hand, while Barca slipped to third place below Sevilla. Had the two-time defense of the Copa del Rey ended prematurely as well, the rest of the season would have suddenly looked bleak, with a difficult round-of-16 tie with Paris Saint-Germain looming in the Champions League next month.

But Messi came through once again from a dead-ball situation. And, for now, things are OK in the Catalan capital.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.