By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Luck had evaded them for more than an hour. Interred in a negative dynamic following a 10-day period which had seen their season turned to shreds, Barcelona finally found an answer when it looked as if they were about to lose for a fourth time in a row.
European elimination to Atletico Madrid last week had been followed by a disappointing defeat at Granada on Saturday and then a Copa del Rey final loss to Real Madrid on Wednesday. Things could barely get any worse. Or so it seemed.
But on a cool night in the Catalan capital on Easter Sunday and following the club's worst week in recent memory, many supporters stayed away. Barca gave the official attendance figure as 57,000, but there were far fewer fans than that inside the famous old stadium - and some of those greeted coach Gerardo Martino with jeers before the game. It wasn't a positive panorama.
Meanwhile, in the opposition dugout sat Ernesto Valverde: Athletic boss, one-time Barcelona player and one of the chief candidates to succeed the Argentine at Camp Nou in the summer. Long admired by the Catalan club for his attractive football, Valverde is a former team-mate and firm friend of Barca sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta - and on Sunday did his chances of a move to the Blaugrana no harm at all.
|VALVERDE'S COACHING CAREER
Pedro and Lionel Messi both missed good chances, but Barca were working hard to get back in track following a tough 10-day spell.
Athletic had their moments as well, with the Basque side making like difficult for the Catalans on a number of occasions - most notably a stunning overhead kick by Aritz Aduriz which rebounded off the post with Jose Pinto a mere spectator.
Aduriz, a player considered by the Barca board as a possible striking solution at Camp Nou, gave Athletic the lead early in the second half and many members of the Camp Nou crowd waved their handkerchiefs in disapproval at the current state of affairs at their cherished club.
But their team are made of strong stuff and, in the absence of the injured Neymar, it was Alexis Sanchez and Pedro who combined to level the scores. Dani Alves ran into the box and squared to the Chilean, whose scuffed shot fell to Pedro - and this time he couldn't miss.
Alexis has been largely ignored lately, while Pedro has been benched for much of the time too to make way for the ineffective Cesc Fabregas and the expensive Neymar, but both delivered on Sunday, running themselves into the ground for the Catalan cause.
Food for thought, perhaps, for Martino, as Barca took the lead minutes later through a Messi free-kick and survived a late scare (thanks to a brilliant block by Javier Mascherano) to claim all three points and remain in the title race, albeit as outsiders now. "We played well, with heart and courage," Martino said afterwards. And Zubizarreta added: "We'll fight until the very last minute for the title."
Still suffering in defence, the Barca board will have glanced enviously towards Athletic's Aymeric Laporte, a superb young centre-back who is interesting the Catalan club and would fit seamlessly into the Blaugrana back line.
Valderde's valiant brand of attacking football also fits the bill on this evidence, while his impressive work at Athletic, Valencia and Espanyol has not gone unnoticed at Barcelona. "Tata has a contract, the 50-year-old said afterwards. "He and the club must decide whether he stays or not and that's the same for me at Athletic - it's the same for all of us. I'm very happy at Athletic at the moment."
But if, as expected, Tata walks away this summer and there's yet another coaching change at the Catalan club, the Basque boss looks like the ideal man to take over at Camp Nou.
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