Barcelona crisis grows as Athletic Bilbao knock them out of Copa del Rey

Athletic Bilbao poured fuel on Barcelona’s fire. A late, late goal exposed them once more, eliminated from the Copa del Rey in the week in which their captain publicly called out their sporting director, divisions coming to the surface, civil war declared, the collapse complete. Lionel Messi had accused Eric Abidal of “dirtying” the players. Here, offered the chance to make a point with their play, they did so themselves. “Talk to me about the football, please,” their coach, Quique Setién, said before this game but, when it came to the football, it was not much better. There was no hiding place on the field. At San Mamés their players were thrown to the lions again. And what awaits them now may be even worse.

A 94th-minute goal from Iñaki Williams defeated Barcelona in the quarter-final of the Copa del Rey. Obviously they will not win the cup but it takes a leap of faith to believe they will win anything at all. The crisis continues, deeper now. It is institutional but it is sporting, too. Though Unai Simón saved Athletic a couple of times, Barcelona could not really claim they deserved better. They could have won but they could also have been beaten sooner.

Away from home their results are calamitous, their vulnerability painfully clear, with one coach or the other. There is little to hold on to, little to believe in – maybe, horrible though it is to hear, not even Messi. For so long they have relied on him to rescue them; here it looked as if he might again. But instead there was impotence, frustration, the smell of failure. At the final whistle the Argentinian held his head in his hands, wearing an all too familiar face. He had the chance to win it – to win the argument – and wasted it. Williams on the other hand, did not. He became a hero.

It took a long time for the goal to arrive but it could have come earlier. Ansu Fati had two shots in the first eight minutes. What was most striking, though, was how fast Barcelona lost control, how complicit they were in the game tilting away from them, escaping them like so many others this season. Athletic’s best opportunities began at Barcelona’s feet rather than their own, gift-wrapped for them. Marc-André ter Stegen passed to Athletic players twice in two minutes, Dani García sending the first opportunity wide, Unai Núñez unable to make the most of the second. Ter Stegen then got away with a third, fear rising.

Lionel Messi reacts after Williams’ late winner added to a bad week for Barcelona.

Lionel Messi reacts after Williams’ late winner added to a bad week for Barcelona. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

When Gerard Piqué and Ter Stegen bumped into each other, it was illustrative of their ills. So, too, the moment when Frenkie de Jong, played clean through by Messi, with Simón off his line, took the baffling decision to dive rather than continue past the goalkeeper. The referee did not need the VAR to rumble him. De Jong went over again soon after, buffeted in the box: this was no dive but nor, the referee decided, was it a penalty. Still, there was no way through. Antoine Griezmann, on as a sub, hit Simón’s legs with the best chance – another one wasted.

Another concerning image followed: Piqué pulled down Williams, desperately grabbing on to his shirt as the Athletic forward tried to escape up the right. Williams was far, far too fast for the centre-back, who even got dragged along the floor for a few metres as he hung on, his vulnerability cruelly, comically exposed. Piqué was booked for the 15th time this season and was soon removed, limping.

Williams, by contrast, kept running. There were two minutes left when Messi was played in by Arthur. Collecting the ball by the six-yard box, he shot straight at Simón. In the 89th Williams had a chance of his own, with Barcelona’s defence again exposed, but he scuffed his volley from a similar position. There was to be one more, though, and this time he turned his header into the net. It was another dagger in Barcelona’s back. San Mamés exploded. Barcelona already had.

Setién ‘satisfied’ despite late heartbreak

Quique Setién and Gerard Piqué both tried to accentuate the positives after the game. “We are leaving this competition, it is painful, but the image of the team has been very good,” Setién said.

“Everything went well today except the result … I am quite satisfied,” he added. “We dominated the whole of the second half, but the penalty is not to get ahead with one of those chances. Sadly, the goal has come to us at a time when there was no chance of a reaction.”

Piqué brushed off questions over Messi’s row with Abidal, saying “it’s not the time to dig up dirt. What I can say is that our confidence is at its highest, we’re happy with the way we’ve played and reacted to the outside noise.”

“It’s really hard because we were eliminated [but] we took an important step, we had a very positive feeling,” Piqué added. “It was a very important step forward.” Guardian sport