Ernesto Valverde’s gamble of resting Lionel Messi backfired on Saturday as Barcelona made it three games without a victory after being held to a 1-1 draw at home to Athletic Bilbao.
Messi came on in the 55th minute at the Camp Nou and it was the Argentinian’s shot that was turned in by another substitute, Munir El Haddadi, with six minutes left to play.
By then, however, Oscar De Marcos had given Bilbao a deserved first-half lead and despite a late rally, Messi and Barca could not find a winner.
After drawing at home to Girona and being beaten by Leganes, Barca will head to Wembley to face Tottenham in the Champions League on Wednesday on the back of three games without a win.
The last time Bilbao took a point at the Camp Nou, Valverde was sitting in the away team’s dug-out, in 2004, during his first spell as Bilbao coach.
Now in charge at Barca, Valverde will have questions to answer for this result, having made the bold decision to rest Messi, presumably with Spurs in mind, along with Sergio Busquets.
Barca surrender top spot in La Liga if Real Madrid beat Atletico in the city derby later on Saturday. Bilbao move up to 14th.
Lack of rotation was chief among the criticisms levelled at Valverde after they crashed out of the Champions League quarter-finals last season, with Luis Suarez admitting he regrets playing 90 minutes against Leganes, three days before the collapse against Roma.
Valverde has certainly acted. Of the preferred 11 that started a 4-0 win over PSV Eindhoven two weeks ago, eight have started at least one of the three games since on the bench. The trouble is that seven of those have been required to come on as substitutes, which suggests Barca’s squad is not deep enough to accommodate the shuffling Valverde has in mind.
Bilbao took the lead in the 41st minute and could have scored earlier. Inaki Williams’ attempted lob had Marc-Andre ter Stegen beaten but drifted wide. Ter Stegen had to push Raul Garcia’s effort over and was then rounded by Williams but the angle proved too tight.
Barca were not without opening themselves, as Suarez was twice denied by Unai Simon but Bilbao looked the more likely to score.
Ousmane Dembele conceded possession and Markel Susaeta’s cross was perfectly weighted to evade the scrambling Sergi Roberto at the back post, where De Marcos slid the ball home.
Valverde waited until 10 minutes after half-time before introducing Messi and Busquets. Sergi and Arturo Vidal made way, the latter with a glare and shake of the head.
Messi got to work. His bending free-kick looked destined for the corner, only for De Marcos to head off the line and another shot hit the post.
Munir replaced Dembele and this last substitution paid off. Messi shot twice, the first scrambled away by Simon but the second fizzed across the face of goal for Munir to divert in.
Barca wanted a winner and they had six minutes to find one. There was to be no late drama, however, as Bilbao claimed a well-deserved point.