By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Crisis? What crisis? Since losing at Real Sociedad on January 4 and the well-publicised fall-out between Luis Enrique and Lionel Messi, Barcelona have now won their last nine games. They overcame a tough test with three points at San Mames on Sunday to close in on Real Madrid. Harmony restored; title hopes revived.
Barca have struggled at Athletic Bilbao in recent seasons, having been held to an entertaining 2-2 draw in Pep Guardiola's last season, tying again with the same scoreline under Tito Vilanova in 2012-13 and then losing out by a single goal with Tata Martino on the bench last term.
But there were no such problems this time around. Athletic gave it a good go early on but the Leones were soon tamed by a slick Barca side, with Messi's deflected free-kick giving the Catalans the lead and Luis Suarez adding a second from the edge of the box after he had previously seen a point-blank header saved by Gorka Iraizoz.
In the second half, Mikel Rico restored hope for Athletic with a close-range effort after Claudio Bravo had saved from Aritz Aduriz, but Barca responded almost immediately and Oscar de Marcos turned Messi's effort into his own net before Neymar subsequently added another.
Constantly questioned earlier this season, all three of Barca's South American forwards were on target for Barca again on Sunday. They have taken their time, but Messi, Suarez and Neymar are clicking into gear as a trident and that is great news for Enrique.
So too is Barca's run of victories. Nine straight wins in all competitions have seen the Catalan club put talk of a crisis behind them and move into the kind of form that suggests they can claim the biggest prizes in 2014-15.
In La Liga, Real Madrid's 4-0 defeat to Atletico on Saturday gave Barca the chance to close to within a point of Carlo Ancelotti's side and this time they grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Messi made the fifth goal of the night, finished by Pedro from a Sergio Busquets pass, and the Argentine is now level with former Barca and Madrid winger Luis Figo on 106 Liga assists - another record set to fall to the astonishing Argentine attacker.
But what matters most is the way the team have responded since the chaos at Anoeta, when Messi was benched following a bust-up with his coach and refused to attend training the next day.
All of that is now in the past and with 16 rounds remaining of La Liga, Luis Enrique's side seem to be hitting the heights at just the right time.
With Madrid in turmoil following their damaging defeat at Atleti on Saturday and some indifferent form of late, Barca are well in truly in the title picture now and apparently improving too as the weeks go by. Crisis? What crisis?