The Catalan giants were held to a goalless draw at the San Mamés Stadium by Athletic Bilbao as they went six points clear at the top of the league table. Atletico started the game brightly and succeeded in making Barcelona uncomfortable. The pace of Inaki Williams was always a danger on the counter, and the likes of Clement Lenglet and Gerard Pique had their hands full.
Neither side failed to break the deadlock before half-time as Marc-Andre ter Stegen pulled off some great stops. The second half brought more of the same. For all the drama in the game, goals did not seem to be on the menu. Substitutes Iker Muniain and Ousmane Dembele did brighten up the game but the spoils were shared at the final whistle. Oscar de Marcos was sent off in the dying seconds for a second yellow card.
Barcelona extended their lead over second-placed Real Madrid to six points as Athletic moved further away from the relegation zone.
Here are the major talking points from the game.
#5 Messi over-dependency proves to be Barcelona's downfall
Lionel Messi is a vital player for Barcelona but there is a fine line between being dependent and handicapped. Against Athletic, the Argentine failed to produce anything, which proved to be their downfall.
Each time any Barcelona player got the ball in the final third, they immediately looked for Messi. Now that is not a bad idea, but Athletic did an impressive job of countering it. They gave Messi very little space and adopted a physical approach with him. He was fouled many times and was afforded little room in dangerous areas.
His teammates were lost for imagination when he was not open, which led to a lot of meaningless sideways passing. Barcelona took 10 shots, out of which just 2 were on target. They also created fewer chances than their opponents.
Ousmane Dembele started the game on the bench, which further increased the load on Messi's shoulders. The little man delivers more often than not but Valverde should think of a 'Plan B' when the situation demands it.
#4 Ter Stegen thwarts near-perfect Athletic gameplan
The possession statistics might disagree, but Gaizka Garitano's gameplan worked brilliantly against Barcelona. However, a man of the match performance from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen salvaged a draw for the visitors.
Athletic had just 33% possession in the game and completed less than half the passes Barcelona completed. But they posed the majority of attacking threat, troubling the Barca defense on the counter. Ter Stegen pulled off a brilliant save to deny Markel Susaeta's curling effort in the first half. In total, he made 5 stops, which included another blinder of a save from Inaki Williams.
Garitano's side had better chances in the game and they held Barcelona at bay. They had more shots, as well as more shots on target. But in goal, they came up against an inspired goalkeeper, and Ter Stegen did not let anything in.
#3 Athletic exploit Barca's lack of width
Barcelona relies on their full-backs to provide the width, especially when both Philippe Coutinho and Lionel Messi play together. Neither of them hugs the touchline, which increases the responsibilities on their full-backs.
That responsibility was not carried out effectively for Barcelona against Bilbao. Neither one of Roberto or Semedo stretched the field effectively, which meant that the likes of Suarez and Messi had to find openings in a congested central area. The lack of width from Barcelona was favorable for their opponents, as they defended in a compact and organized manner.
Too often, Semedo and Roberto were needed in advanced positions, but they were not available. Semedo, in particular, was restricted, playing as a left back. Jordi Alba was missed sorely, and Semedo will surely move over to the right side which provides balance on the wings for Barca.
#2 Alba and Arthur missed sorely by Barcelona
Arthur missed the trip due to an injury, and the midfielder is expected to be out for a couple of weeks. Left-back Jordi Alba also didn't feature, as he was suspended due to the accumulation of yellow cards in the league. Both the players were part of Barca's strongest eleven, and their absence was felt keenly.
Arturo Vidal, who started in Arthur's absence failed to impress. He gave the ball away cheaply on too many occasions and failed to offer any attacking output. Alba's absence meant that Nelson Semedo was deployed on the left side. Semedo lacks the telepathic understanding which Alba has with Messi and failed to be an attacking force on the left wing like Alba so often does.
Alba will be back into the side from next game, but Arthur's absence is bound to be a lengthy one. Vidal will definitely have to raise his game in the coming weeks for Ernesto Valverde.
#1 Barcelona fail to make headway in the title race
Atletico Madrid dropped points on Saturday as Real Madrid beat them 3-1 in the Madrid derby. Real Madrid are currently second in the points table, six points behind the Catalan giants.
They failed to take the opportunity, as the draw at the San Mames was their third consecutive one in all competitions. Real Madrid's recent resurgence has meant that the Los Blancos are climbing up the table fast. Barcelona has to play both Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the coming weeks, which means that the gap is by no means insurmountable.
As of now, the title race is definitely a three-horse race as the top three teams are separated by seven points. After the non-existent title race last season, it is refreshing for the neutrals to see the competition as we enter the business end of the campaign.