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Respect! Rakitic upstages Messi to silence Barcelona haters - for now

23:26 BST 23/06/2020
Ivan Rakitic Lionel Messi Luis Suarez Barcelona 2019-20 GFX
The Croatian has long been a figure of hate for the Blaugrana's online followers but he was the hero in Wednesday's vital 1-0 win over Athletic Club

This was meant to be Lionel Messi's night. On the eve of his 33rd birthday, the Barcelona captain sat on 699 career goals.

In his previous 11 appearances against Athletic Club at Camp Nou, he had struck 10 times and racked up four assists. It was inevitable that he would be involved in Barca's late winner.

The Blaugrana captain merely created it, though; it was Ivan Rakitic who scored the only goal of the game.

There are few more despised players among Barca's notoriously rabid and reactionary online followers.

Rakitic has long been viewed as the symbol of a once great team's gradual but obvious decline. He is deemed sub-standard, too ponderous and pedestrian in possession.

Some of criticism is not without validity but it has long been horribly over the top.

Rakitic's partner, Raquel Mauri, even felt compelled to comment last October, praising the midfielder for his "professionalism" in the face of such incessant and vicious abuse, and declaring: “You are great – and nobody can change that.”

Whatever one's views on the Croatian's talent, it's impossible to question his attitude.

He barely featured during the first half of the season under Ernesto Valverde and hasn't always started for Quique Setien, who took over in January, but never complained.

"I am in a team sport, not an individual one," Rakitic told Tportal.

Rakitic was back on the bench again against Athletic on Wednesday night but when Barca needed a breakthrough, it was the much-maligned 32-year-old who provided it.

The former Sevilla star didn't just finish the move either; he started it, cleverly stepping forward to win a bouncing ball on the edge of the box before continuing his run into the area to latch onto a return pass from Messi to fire home his 50th goal in La Liga.

Messi's 'assist' may not have even been intentional but it was his 250th for Barcelona. It also means that the Argentine has both scored and created 15 or more goals in a single season for the fifth time in his career.

However, the importance of Rakitic's goal, which arrived just 19 minutes from time, cannot be overstated.

Having drawn 0-0 at Sevilla last Friday – a result which allowed Real Madrid to later go top of La Liga on account of a superior head-to-head record – Barca were in real danger of being held scoreless for the second consecutive game.

Despite Messi being his usual sprightly self, creating chances for the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Luis Suarez, the Blaugrana had once again failed to click offensively.

Griezmann can hardly complain about being replaced by the far livelier Ansu Fati midway through the second half, given the Frenchman has now gone seven La Liga games without a goal – his worst run since December 2016.

Indeed, the World Cup winner was still trudging back to the bench when Fati very nearly scored with his first touch.

However, of the front three, it was Suarez should have come off first. It was actually staggering that the Uruguayan, who has only just returned from knee surgery, was allowed to stay on until the 85th minute, as he failed dismally to get into the game, let alone carry a legitimate goalscoring threat.

Quique Setien does deserve some credit for some of his substitutions, though. As well as Fati, Riqui Puig also injected some much-needed vitality into the game when he replaced the ineffective Arthur, who once again did little to suggest he would be missed if he were to be sold to Juventus.

In the end, though, it wasn't one of the youngsters, or even Messi, who earned three precious points for Barcelona. It was the man who many Barca fans wish were no longer at the club.

When he was linked with a move away from Camp Nou for the umpteenth time back in April, Rakitic told Mundo Deportivo: "I am not a sack of potatoes. I will decide my future and I want to be where I am valued."

Wednesday's goal is unlikely to secure the 2015 Champions League winner the respect he craves – and deserves – from all of Barca's fans.

But on the night when everyone expected to see Messi make history, Rakitic was the match-winner – and nobody can change that.