Rakitic header earns Barca victory in Bilbao
BARCELONA – Champions Barcelona came through a gruelling La Liga test at a rainswept San Mames, beating Athletic Bilbao 1-0 thanks to Ivan Rakitic’s first-half header.
Elsewhere, Las Palmas thrashed Granada 5-1 to top the table with six points from two matches ahead of Barca and Real Madrid on goal difference while Europa League holders Sevilla were held to a goalless draw at Villarreal.
Croatia midfielder Rakitic glanced in Arda Turan’s cross to complete a sweeping move started by Luis Suarez and settle the visiting side’s nerves after a few early scares, including goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen giving the ball away in his own area.
Barca grew in confidence after the break and stand-in captain Lionel Messi spurned two chances while Suarez also failed to capitalise on a couple of clear opportunities and had a shot cleared off the line in injury time.
Luis Enrique’s men almost lived to regret their profligacy as Bilbao’s Raul Garcia fired narrowly wide and Iker Muniain had a late penalty appeal turned down.
“I’m happy with the result against an opponent of such magnitude,” Luis Enrique told a news conference.
“We could have wrapped the game up earlier but it was a good performance and the three points are well earned.”
Luis Enrique had warned that the visit to San Mames was always one of the hardest away trips for Barca and although they looked comfortable at the start, they soon began to struggle with Bilbao’s intense pressing and aggression.
Ter Stegen gave the visitors a fright when he played the ball straight to Benat Etxebarria but the keeper got his body in the way of the midfielder’s shot and later made saves from Aritz Aduriz and Benat again.
Jordi Alba defended the German’s risky style, saying: “I wish all goalkeepers were like him, he’s the best in the world with the ball at his feet, he’s our goalkeeper for the present and will be for many years to come”.
Barca jitters were calmed in the 21st minute when Rakitic was left unmarked in the area to nod Turan’s centre into the corner.
Turkey international Turan spurned a chance to double the lead before the break, miskicking at the near post, the first of a series of opportunities that went begging for the champions.
Messi started to make an impact in the second half after a relatively quiet first period but twice missed the target.
The usually prolific Suarez also endured a frustrating evening in front of goal, inexplicably failing to convert the simplest of chances at the end, taking too long to shoot with the net gaping and seeing his shot scrambled off the line.
Las Palmas followed their 4-2 win at Valencia last week with a dominant display against Granada, Nabil El Zhar scoring twice in the 5-1 rout.
Midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng netted for the second game running after joining Las Palmas from AC Milan and dedicated his goal to the victims of last week’s earthquake in Italy that has killed at least 290 people. “I leapt off my seat at the goal because of the quality of the counter attack, the shot and because…he hit it with his heart,” said coach Quique Setien. -Reuters