Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde accepts the 0-0 draw they secured away to Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday is a "dangerous" result.

Valverde's side generally controlled proceedings in France, but they were wasteful in front of goal and Lionel Messi was unable to create much of note.

It leaves the tie nicely poised for the second leg at Camp Nou on March 13 and Barca will be seen as favourites, but Valverde is well aware that Tuesday's result provides Lyon with encouragement.

"I do not think it is very easy to win away from home in the Champions League," Valverde told Movistar. "We have absolutely dominated and they have not lost any match in this competition so far this season.

"Lyon had chances in the beginning but we came back well and we controlled the game until the end.

"We have created a lot of chances, but football is a matter of success and today we have not had it. The tie is in the air, 0-0 is a dangerous result, we will not kid ourselves."

Lyon defender Leo Dubois believes the draw gives his side every chance to progress to the quarter-finals and feels they did well despite Messi occupying more than one defender at a time.

"They have a player [Messi] who keeps a full defensive line busy," he said. "We tried to push them out from the middle, as they are less of a threat from the wings.

"The scoreline is fine for us. We still have a chance to progress even if we know it will be tough. We believe in ourselves.

"We weren't necessarily in control at times. We may also have mismanaged some counter situations. Everyone did their part and made the effort. We have everything to play for in three weeks. It's up to us to play a big match."

Barcelona slumped to a fourth draw in five matches across all competitions as they were held to a 0-0 stalemate away to Lyon in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash.

Ernesto Valverde's men were far from their intense best and were particularly wasteful in front of goal, as Lionel Messi struggled to produce the kind of match-winning display many have come to expect every time he takes to the pitch.

Barca generally controlled the entertaining first half and created some promising opportunities, but were it not for two excellent early saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen they could have found themselves trailing.

The second half was lacking in intensity, as opportunities became more infrequent and Barca had to be content with returning to Camp Nou for the second leg on March 13 without an away goal.

Lyon were the quicker out of the blocks and went close twice inside 10 minutes, as Ter Stegen got down to keep Houssem Aouar's effort out of his bottom-left corner, before then brilliantly tipping a 25-yard Martin Terrier strike onto the crossbar.

But Barca did craft several openings of their own – Messi spurning arguably their best in the 17th minute when blazing over from 12 yards after Jordi Alba's cut-back.

Lyon were then spared on the stroke of half-time, as Jason Denayer crucially deflected Sergio Busquets' goal-bound effort just wide.

The hosts started the second half well and went agonisingly close when Memphis Depay's first-time 20-yard strike early on flew just wide the left-hand post.

But that was a rare Lyon highlight in the second period as Barca dominated – goalkeeper Anthony Lopes producing a string of fine saves to thwart Luis Suarez twice and Busquets' long-range attempt all in the final 20 minutes, securing himself a deserved clean sheet.

 

What does it mean? Barca should have enough at home

Lyon played some attractive football at times and clearly have several very talented young players, but Barca managed to keep them at arm's length for most of the game, something that bodes well for the return to Camp Nou. Nevertheless, the performance will raise doubts about how far they can go in the competition.

Lyon in safe hands with Lopes

Commanding and reassuring from deliveries into the box, and unbeatable when Barca tried their luck on goal, Lopes put in an excellent performance, particularly coming into his own late on with several vital stops – one from Busquets really catching the eye.

Muted Messi

By the standards of others, Messi was hardly bad, but compared to his usual level, the Argentine flattered to deceive. He missed a glorious opportunity in the first half and generally did not look himself, almost appearing a little moody.

What's next?

Barca face another potentially tricky trip on Saturday in LaLiga as they head to Sevilla, before the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final against Real Madrid four days later. Lyon travel to Monaco on Sunday in Ligue 1.

Barcelona are beginning to plan for a future without Lionel Messi, although club president Josep Maria Bartomeu believes he will sign another contract.

The 31-year-old's current deal will expire after the 2020-21 campaign and the Barca captain has previously said he would like to return to his homeland with boyhood club Newell's Old Boys.

Messi started his career at Newell's but moved to Barcelona as a teenager, developing into an all-time great of the game with nine LaLiga titles and four Champions League crowns.

Bartomeu remains hopeful Messi can be persuaded to extend his time at the club even further but accepts Barca must have a plan for when the Argentina international moves on.

"We are already thinking about it, but it is a future still far away," Bartomeu said to Le Figaro. "He is a young player, he is 31-years-old, his performance is very good, he plays even better and better, I do not know how he does it!

"He has a contract for two seasons, but I think he will extend his career beyond 2021. But you have to think of young talent. When Messi no longer plays, no one can replace him. It's impossible.

"Behind Messi, there is nobody. Neither in Barca nor anywhere else. The coach of the day will have to think of how the team will play [but] the idea of Barca football will remain the same."

Barcelona have been strongly linked with a move for Paris Saint-Germain's Adrien Rabiot, but Bartomeu denied there has been contact between the LaLiga leaders and the France international.

Rabiot is expected to leave PSG at the end of the season, when his deal expires, with the midfielder not in contention for selection by coach Thomas Tuchel due to the contract stand-off.

"The planning of the club for the next seasons is not yet launched, we will start in March," Bartomeu said of links to Rabiot.

"In addition, Barca always puts the priority on the players of our B team. If we do not find them, we will look for them outside.

"The only sure thing about Rabiot is that on June 30 he will be free."

One player who will be lining up for Barca next season is the Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong, with the Netherlands international adding to Ernesto Valverde's midfield options after agreeing a move worth €86million.

"When a player arrives at Barca, he knows he will be competing. It's a challenge for them, some accept it, others do not," Bartomeu continued. "When we go looking for a talent outside, we are sometimes told: 'I want to play, not be on the bench.'

"He is a player who will mark a time of European football. He has an incredible talent and an understanding of football which is that of Barca... and the same as that of Ajax."

Lionel Messi is the "only genius in world football" according to former Real Madrid head coach Fabio Capello, who also praised Cristiano Ronaldo's impact at Juventus.

Barcelona superstar Messi and Ronaldo have won five Ballon d'Or awards apiece, with ongoing debate as to who is the greatest player of all time.

Asked about Messi at the Laureus Awards in Monaco, Capello – who won two LaLiga titles in two spells with Madrid – told reporters: "Leo Messi is not a footballer, he is a genius and the only genius in world football.

"He has not won much silverware with Argentina but that is because he cannot do it all alone."

Capello did laud Ronaldo following his move to Juventus, where the former Madrid star has flourished this season.

After joining in a €112million deal ahead of the 2018-19 campaign, Ronaldo has scored a Serie A-high 19 goals and 22 in all competitions for the Italian champions.

"Cristiano has woken up a lot of Juventus players," ex-Juve player and coach Capello said. "Bringing him to the club has been a wake-up call for many players and he has made them improve.

"He is very important for Juventus because having someone as good as him at training every day and someone who takes care of himself in the way Ronaldo does, is hugely significant for a team that was coasting.

"It is obvious that he is desperate to win the Champions League with Juventus."

Lionel Messi is the perfect team-mate in attack because of the extra opposition attention he occupies, according to fellow Barcelona star Ousmane Dembele.

Argentina great Messi and France forward Dembele have struck up a successful understanding in the latter's second season at Camp Nou, sharing 43 goals between them in all competitions.

The former Borussia Dortmund man is beginning to plug the hole left by Neymar, who departed for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 due to a reported desire to break free of Messi's shadow.

Dembele, in contrast, is more than happy for his captain to retain the burden of responsibility.

"It's great, he makes football easier," Dembele told Barca's website.

"I give him the ball and he does incredible things. When he's on the pitch it's easier for a forward, because the rivals focus mainly on him."

Messi and Dembele will both have big roles to play when the Blaugrana visit Lyon in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday.

Bruno Genesio's men advanced undefeated through Group F and have recorded impressive victories over Premier League leaders Manchester City and Ligue 1 table-toppers PSG this term.

Ex-Rennes winger Dembele warned: "They're a team with very good players and it's very difficult to win there.

"They demonstrated this season - winning against City and PSG - that we will have to be very attentive and not think that the game will be easy.

"[Nabil] Fekir - suspended for the first leg - is their best player, but there are other players who have great qualities, and we'll have to watch everyone.

"I look closely at their Ligue 1 matches, and I play alongside some of their players in the French national team like Fekir, [Ferland] Mendy or Moussa Dembele. They are dangerous all over the pitch."

Barca remain in the hunt to win the treble and Dembele encouraged his team-mates to fight on as many fronts as possible.

"We have to be focused on our goals," the 21-year-old said. "We want to win titles, win the Champions League and also the league, of course!"

Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde is not worried about Lionel Messi taking penalties after the superstar scored one and failed to convert another against Real Valladolid.

It was a mixed evening for Messi at Camp Nou, where the Barca captain's 43rd-minute penalty led the LaLiga leaders to a 1-0 victory on Saturday.

Messi – who has scored 30 or more goals in each of his last 11 seasons in all competitions for Barca – should have had a second but the five-time Ballon d'Or winner saw his 85th-minute spot-kick kept out by Jordi Masip.

"No, no, I'm not particularly nervous. I was convinced he was going to score both," Valverde replied when asked if he was anxious about Messi taking penalties.

"Leo is a safe bet. He could have scored more goals as well."

Barca were far from their best but the defending champions still managed to get past visitors Valladolid as they returned to winning ways.

Three consecutive draws against Valencia and Athletic Bilbao in LaLiga, and Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-finals, raised eyebrows and while Valverde acknowledged Barca's shortcomings on Saturday, he is confident his side will rediscover their best.

Barca travel to French side Lyon for the opening leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday.

"In the first half, we had very little fluidity in attack and did not move the ball with the necessary speed," Valverde told reporters.

"They changed their system and we were not fluent and could not circulate things quickly but their goalkeeper did well. Some games are won like that, though, and Tuesday [against Lyon] will be another challenge for us.

"I see the team as being ready to give their best now and get back to that. Sometimes you won't be brilliant in every game but there are four important matches coming up and we will go step by step."

Gerard Pique has demanded improvement from Barcelona after they returned to winning ways in LaLiga with a fitful 1-0 triumph against Real Valladolid.

Draws against Valencia and Athletic Bilbao, either side of the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final against Real Madrid finishing 1-1, amounted to a wobble at the summit for Ernesto Valverde's champions.

A first-half penalty from Lionel Messi was enough to see off Valladolid, although ex-Barca goalkeeper Jordi Masip embellished an excellent display by keeping out a second spot-kick from the Argentine superstar five minutes from time.

It means Barcelona will return to Champions League action against Lyon with at least a six-point lead in LaLiga after 24 games, but Pique – who won the decisive penalty after marauding forward – does not believe Tuesday's European assignment will go to plan on current form.

"We didn't play well, it wasn't a good game," he told Movistar.

"The only good news is the victory, to get back to winning three points, but we have to improve. 

"The sensations are not good and, for Tuesday, we have to be better. If not, it will go poorly."

Valverde rested Ivan Rakitic on the bench, while fellow midfielder Arthur is sidelined with a hamstring complaint, and Pique felt Barca were sluggish in possession as Arturo Vidal and La Masia graduate Carles Alena deputised.

"You have to find fluidity and play, that is what has brought us titles," he said.

"If we don't speed up the ball, we have possession...and we turn into a weak team.

"This is what we have to improve because our opponents know it."

Pique went to ground slightly theatrically when Valladolid captain Michel placed his arms on his shoulders, but the centre-back was in no doubt he deserved to be awarded a penalty.

"He knocked into my back, he unbalanced me and I fell. It's a penalty," he added.

"On television, they see things but the contact is enough for me to fall. For me, it's a penalty."

Lionel Messi netted his 30th goal of the season before missing his second penalty of the game as leaders Barcelona returned to winning ways in LaLiga with a 1-0 victory over Real Valladolid.

Gerard Pique won the 43rd-minute spot kick that proved the difference between the sides but, following back-to-back draws against Valencia and Athletic Bilbao in the top flight, Ernesto Valverde's men were again short of their fluent best.

Those previous results and Atletico Madrid's win over third-bottom Rayo Vallecano earlier on Saturday meant Barca went into the game with their now-restored lead at the top trimmed to four points.

Former Blaugrana goalkeeper Jordi Masip impressed in goal for Valladolid, not least after substitute Philippe Coutinho won a second penalty and he plunged to his left to deny Messi.

Referee Juan Martinez Munuera rejected earlier penalty claims from Kevin-Prince Boateng on his first LaLiga start but was persuaded by Pique's slightly theatrical fall under Michel's clumsy challenge.

Masip guessed correctly to his left but was beaten for power and accuracy by Messi, before Pique made himself useful in his own box – getting a vital touch with Enes Unal poised to convert Nacho's cross.

Sergi Guardiola dragged a shot wide as Valladolid continued to acquit themselves well in the second half, although they were indebted to a stunning reaction save from Masip as he denied Messi on the half-volley.

The visiting keeper scrambled from his line effectively to snuff out danger after Boateng sprung a flimsy offside trap in the 55th minute.

Luis Suarez replaced the ex-AC Milan attacker with an hour played and he was soon thwarted by Masip in a one-on-one.

Messi's frustrations approached boiling point as he was booked for protests following a robust challenge from Anuar Mohamed.

He would prove the match-winner, even if Masip did his mood no favours five minutes from time, calmly pouching his headed follow-up from the penalty save.

What does it mean? Barcelona doing enough but nothing more

This was certainly not the performance Valverde will have wanted in the week he signed a surprise contract renewal at Camp Nou. Victory guaranteed Barcelona will return to European action next week holding at least a six-point advantage at LaLiga's summit, with Real Madrid in action against Girona on Sunday.

But the coming months look likely to arrive with some uncomfortable questions. Again Valverde rested key players and the supporting cast failed to convince, while recent displays have more in common with the humbling Champions League exits to Juventus and Roma in the past two seasons than more glorious campaigns.

Masip enjoys Camp Nou return

Never more than a peripheral figure at Barcelona – Saturday's appearance doubled his amount of LaLiga appearances at Camp Nou – La Masia graduate Masip was superb on his return. The early second-half save from Messi was the game's outstanding moment until he denied the great man again from 12 yards. A remarkable stop from Suarez in stoppage time completed a fabulous body of work.

Alena fails to grab opportunity

The academy that reared Masip is more famous for producing playmaking midfielders, although the well has run dry in that regard of late. Carles Alena is the outstanding talent of the most recent crop, a tidy and elegant central operator. But his radar was askew here, with several passes misplaced in clanging fashion. Alena's start came as Ivan Rakitic was rested, but Valverde tellingly summoned the Croatia star in his place 14 minutes from time.

What's next

Barcelona travel to Lyon in the last-16 of the Champions League on Tuesday before a tough away assignment in LaLiga next weekend at Sevilla, whose city rivals Real Betis are Valladolid’s visitors.

Barcelona surprised few by announcing a contract extension for coach Ernesto Valverde on Friday, a just reward for a strong start to life at Camp Nou.

Valverde, 55, is in his second season at the helm in Catalonia having joined from Athletic Bilbao, and he has been an instant success.

Barca won LaLiga and the Copa del Rey in Valverde's first campaign, while they look on course to at least repeat that double this season, sitting six points clear at the summit with a Copa semi-final second leg at Real Madrid to look forward to.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said earlier in the week that he had no doubts about Valverde and was adamant he was to remain in charge next term – a sentiment confirmed by Friday's announcement, as the coach signed a one-year extension with the option of a further season.

Valverde is not the visionary many feel Pep Guardiola is, nor was his team convincing in the Champions League last year, but Barca's faith is surely well-placed for several reasons.

 

Happy Messi, happy Barca

One thing no one can doubt about Valverde's time at Barca has been his use of talisman Lionel Messi. The Argentine scored 34 goals in 36 LaLiga games last term, while he has 21 in 21 appearances this season. The coach has got the very best from his star man, making him the centre of everything they do. System-wise, the team is perhaps more rigid and calculated under Valverde than it had been for a while – but Messi retains freedom and that has produced fine results.

 

Thriving despite muddled transfer business

Valverde has had to contend with a complete lack of organisation and direction from those in charge of the club's recruitment, and he was dealt a devastating blow in losing Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain soon after joining Barca. The head coach was reportedly unhappy with the departure of former sporting director Robert Fernandez, while the signing of Malcom is said to have been done without his consultation. On top of that, Paulinho's sale apparently frustrated him and a host of other arrivals have made little impact as yet - namely Philippe Coutinho, Nelson Semedo, Jeison Murillo, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Arturo Vidal. Still Valverde thrives, however.

 

Stability in a chaotic world

No one is going to claim Valverde is in a class of his own, a coach who will revolutionise the modern game. He is not a Johan Cruyff, or a Guardiola, and his teams do not play swashbuckling, all-out attacking football that has the masses watching in astonishment. However, the Champions League aside, his system has unequivocally worked at Barca, bringing two major trophies and there is every chance he will add to that tally this season. It would be all too easy to ditch him for a shiny new toy, much like Madrid with Julen Lopetegui earlier in the campaign, but stability in the cut-throat environment of modern football can only be a good thing in this situation.

Lionel Messi will stay at Barcelona and his relationship with the club will last "forever", according to club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Messi, 31, is enjoying another fine season with the Catalan giants, having scored 21 goals in as many LaLiga games this season, with Barca six points clear at the summit.

The Argentine star has just over two years left on his Barca contract and will be 34 when it expires.

Messi has previously stated his desire to play in his native Argentina with Newell's Old Boys before he finishes his career.

But Bartomeu does not want to see Messi leave the club, confident a new contract will be agreed to keep him at Camp Nou for the remainder of his career.

"Leo Messi will continue with us," Bartomeu told RKB. "He is a club player and the relationship will continue forever.

"He has told us that he wants to continue. We have offered him a new contract over five years and I hope we will continue discussing the deal."

Bartomeu also expects coach Ernesto Valverde to remain at the club for the foreseeable future, adamant he will stay even if they win no trophies this season.

"I believe he will stay," he added. "He trusts his players and it is only his second season in charge.

"The goal is to finish the season strong and win everything. I trust him to lead the team and even if we do not win anything, he will continue to coach the team."

When a Gareth Bale-inspired Real Madrid overcame Liverpool 3-1 in last season's Champions League final, the triumph merely scratched the surface of LaLiga's recent dominance in Europe's premier club competition.

Having become the first team in the Champions League era to retain the title against Juventus in Cardiff in 2017, head coach Zinedine Zidane made it three in a row before riding off into the sunset.

Madrid have won four out of five, their bitter rivals Barcelona interrupting the streak in 2015. Indeed, Liverpool and Juventus proved to be the only interlopers on a Spanish party during this period – Atletico Madrid were left in anguish by their city rivals in 2014 and 2016.

Five wins out of five and seven of the previous 10 finalists paints a picture of total domination that felt unlikely after Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund in an all-Bundesliga affair at Wembley in 2013.

That experience shows the folly of declaring the beginning and end of eras, but LaLiga's grip on continental supremacy appears somewhat looser as this season's knockout rounds get underway.

No Zidane, no Ronaldo = no party?

That Madrid's struggles post-Kiev seemed, to an extent, so inevitable is a damning indictment of president Florentino Perez and the Bernabeu hierarchy.

Zidane caught them off guard – Madrid head coaches are habitually pushed rather than jumping on their own terms – but the pursuit of Julen Lopetegui was an unseemly mess that counted torpedoing Spain's World Cup campaign among its collateral.

A chequebook that remained tightly bound even after Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Juventus gave an indication of why Los Blancos were so hasty in wrapping up the Lopetegui deal. They were not presenting a strong hand to any incoming coach.

Being able to rely on an all-time great forward and the inspiration of a club hero in the dressing room had papered over plenty of ills and Lopetegui trudged out of his second dream job in a matter of months following a 5-1 hammering in El Clasico.

Messi carrying Barcelona

Barcelona accomplished that October humiliation of their bitter foes without a sidelined Lionel Messi as Luis Suarez produced a bravura display.

However, recent weeks have added weight to claims of Messidependencia. The mercurial Argentinian was rested for Copa del Rey ties at Levante and Sevilla and had to be recalled to pull around first-leg defeats. He came off the bench in last week's 1-1 semi final draw at home to Madrid despite injury fears.

Those losses and a 2-2 LaLiga draw against Valencia pointed to unaddressed defensive vulnerabilities, exacerbated by Ernesto Valverde's squad rotation – a necessity of the modern game, but the drop-off when the Barca boss rests weary legs is often stark.

Sunday's stalemate at Athletic Bilbao made it three winless games across all competitions, while uncertainty over whether Valverde will stay beyond the end of this season might count against players going the extra mile..

Atletico fluffing their lines

The thrill of Atletico's 2013-14 LaLiga triumph and their Champions League final appearances was how against the odds it all felt.

Diego Simeone's side cannot be so easily cast in that role this time around, given they mark a contrast to the sense of drift witnessed at their city rivals and Barca.

After tying star forward Antoine Griezmann down to a long-term contract, Simeone was reportedly set to follow suit at the end of last year. What he has built in the shadow of two giants is, by any measure, incredible.

But it feels reasonable to ask whether Atleti could be doing more.

Barcelona have left the door ajar in LaLiga, failing to win eight matches this term. But Atleti have now dropped points 11 times and find themselves behind Madrid after Saturday's sapping 3-1 defeat on their own patch in El Derbi.

PSG, Juventus, Manchester City – can anyone take advantage?

If those flaws paint an unconvincing picture for Atletico, Barcelona and Real Madrid, the lack of a solid counter-argument from Europe's pretenders to the throne gives cause for encouragement.

Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham are embroiled in a fierce and sapping battle for the Premier League title, which has magnified flaws with in each excellent team. All face Bundesliga opposition this month and must be wary of becoming over-stretched.

The other Premier League participant, Manchester United, are revelling in a post-Jose Mourinho feelgood factor under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and represent an unappetising prospect for a Neymar-less Paris Saint-Germain, who are still to bring their Ligue 1 dominance to bear on the European stage.

Juventus' move for Ronaldo was the clearest statement yet of their determination to take the final step – an experienced side hitting the sort of peak Bayern Munich now have in their rear view mirror.

The Old Lady's showdown with Atleti is the pick of the last 16 ties and could prove a bellwether when it comes to assessing LaLiga's current strength.

Following a home loss to Real Sociedad at the start of the year, Madrid have rediscovered the winning feeling, something deeply ingrained in their muscle memory where the big trophy is concerned.

Interim boss Santiago Solari came through this week's clashes against Barcelona and Atletico intact, with a reputation enhanced and confidence blossoming within his squad. Ajax are up next, having lost two of their past three Eredivisie outings. It couldn't happen again, could it?

Meanwhile, focusing upon Barca without Messi ignores the terrifying prospect for opponents when he is in full flight.

LaLiga's heavyweights might not swagger as they once did, but the rest will have to walk taller than before to knock them off their stride.  

Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde dismissed suggestions Lionel Messi was not fit enough to start in Sunday's 0-0 draw at Athletic Bilbao.

LaLiga's leaders were held to a third draw in succession across all competitions, as they were frustrated at San Mames by Athletic.

Messi started Wednesday's 1-1 Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg draw against Real Madrid on the bench due to a thigh knock, but he came back into the line-up in Bilbao.

The Argentina star was Barca's liveliest player, yet he still appeared to be a little off colour compared his usual level of performance.

As such, Barca were kept at bay, as Philippe Coutinho did little to ease the burden on their talisman, but Valverde is adamant Messi was in condition to play.

Speaking to reporters, Valverde said: "Messi is fine and he has played at 100 per cent.

"He has had some difficulties, because we had them as a collective, but when he plays it is because is absolutely convinced everything is fine."

Valverde accepted that Arturo Vidal and Coutinho were some way short of their best, however.

"It's like everything else when you get a draw that you think that you should have won," Valverde said.

"It is a matter for the whole team and people always point to a player because he failed a pass or some situation. It is true that sometimes they can be more successful."

 

Lionel Messi's return to the starting line-up was not enough to prevent Barcelona drawing a third successive match across all competitions, as Athletic Bilbao held out for a 0-0 stalemate at San Mames in LaLiga.

Argentina superstar Messi was only named among the substitutes for Wednesday's 1-1 Copa del Rey draw against Real Madrid having struggled with a thigh injury and he looked a little off colour as Barca end the weekend just six points clear of Los Blancos in second.

Athletic edged an entertaining first half and went close on a couple of occasions, while Barca appeared to be missing the talents of Arthur in midfield – Arturo Vidal failing to impress in a similar role to the injured Brazilian, who faces a month out.

Ernesto Valverde's side had little luck creating clear-cut opportunities in the second half - albeit Nelson Semedo was contentiously denied a last-gasp penalty – and could have even have lost as Athletic, who had Oscar De Marcos sent off for a second bookable offence in injury-time, went close twice late on.

Barca struggled to cope during the early exchanges and had two lucky escapes. Yuri Berchiche drilled just wide of the bottom-right corner before Markel Susaeta's curling effort forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a wonderful acrobatic save.

The visitors gradually gained a foothold and went mightily close in the 26th minute, as Iago Herrerin beat Nelson Semedo – who was incorrectly pulled back for being offside at the end of the move – and nudged the ball to Messi, whose first-time effort from distance hit the crossbar.

Barca were convinced they should have had a penalty at the start of the second half when Luis Suarez's header appeared to strike the arm of Inigo Martinez, but nothing was given.

Athletic nearly took all of the points in the final 10 minutes, Inaki Williams heading wide from close range, before then seeing Ter Stegen produce a remarkable reaction save to thwart him from just 10 yards.

De Marcos was given his marching orders late on when handling the ball, and Barca were denied a penalty with the last action of the game – VAR failing to reward them despite Semedo appearing to be caught by Yeray Alvarez.

 

 

What does it mean? Barca blip coming at the wrong time

As Santiago Solari's Madrid – 3-1 victors over Atletico Madrid on Saturday – pick up the pace in LaLiga, cracks are starting to appear at Camp Nou. This may just be a brief blip, but Valverde needs his men to react quickly.

Alvarez in command at the back

Athletic had to contend with long periods under pressure in the second half, but Alvarez remained solid in defence, marshalling Luis Suarez particularly well. He was perhaps lucky to avoid conceding a late penalty for his tackle on Semedo, however.

Coutinho blends into the background

Even though he did not look entirely sharp, Messi was still seemingly expected to do all of the creating for Barca. Philippe Coutinho should be the one to take some of the burden off their talisman, but he offered very little spark, yet again.

What's next?

Barca return to Camp Nou on Saturday, hosting Real Valladolid. Athletic travel to Huesca two days later.

Lionel Messi could face Athletic Bilbao on Sunday if he feels fully fit, Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde says.

The Argentina star was only fit enough to appear as a second-half substitute of the 1-1 Copa del Rey draw with Real Madrid on Wednesday, having been battling a thigh injury.

Valverde is still wary of taking unnecessary risks, especially with a Champions League last-16 first leg against Lyon to come on February 19, but he hopes to have Messi available.

"As always, we have to wait to make a decision," he told a news conference on Saturday. "We didn't want to take a risk the other day and we're in a similar situation [on Sunday].

"He's okay, but if he were at 100 per cent, as he has been at other times, he'd play. If he's okay, he'll play, and if not, we'll have to make a decision."

Barca head to San Mames without midfielder Arthur, who is expected to miss most of the next month with a hamstring injury.

However, Valverde believes he has strong options for central midfield, including Philippe Coutinho, whose form has been under intense recent scrutiny.

"[With Arthur] we're losing a player who gives us control of the game, but injuries always come like that," he said. "We have alternatives. We have [Carles] Alena, who is more attacking; Arturo [Vidal] has an attacking edge, but less control. It depends on the game.

"Coutinho is a possibility in terms of how we decide the match."

Valverde does hope to have Samuel Umtiti and Ousmane Dembele fully fit soon, although he would not say if either will be available to face Bilbao.

"Umtiti did the first part of training yesterday and we want him to do more," he said. "Dembele's injury isn't as long. We'll assess today if he's okay or not."

Valverde was again asked to comment on his future, with speculation that he will leave at the end of the season persisting, but he simply said: "When I have an answer, I'll give it to you."

Barcelona defender Gerard Pique felt Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos should have been sent off in the 1-1 El Clasico draw on Wednesday.

Ramos was booked in just the 10th minute of the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg at Camp Nou and was perhaps fortunate to escape a second yellow for a foul on Arthur and later an incident involving Luis Suarez.

While Pique said referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz performed well, he thought Ramos should have seen red.

"In general, he has made a good match," he told reporters.

"It was a card for Sergio, but what can we do?"

Barca came from behind at home as Malcom cancelled out Lucas Vazquez's opener, with Lionel Messi only able to come off the bench after battling a thigh injury.

Pique was happy with what he saw from the 31-year-old superstar and he hopes Messi is ready to go against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

"I've seen him very well, fast. He has not felt the discomfort he had and it's good news," he said.

"We hope to have him for the San Mames match and help us."

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