Meanwhile, Ernesto Valverde’s return to Barcelona was a sour one, and although his team sit in 6th position in the table, they are without a win in the last four games.
1. Barca thrash Athletic to stay on Madrid’s tails
Barcelona have found their goal-scoring touch again, but it will likely come too late to save their Champions League campaign. After scoring three goals in the first half of Thursday’s win over Villarreal, they repeated the feat against Athletic Bilbao at Camp Nou on Sunday. They then went one better by adding a fourth after the break.
Xavi Hernandez tinkered with his side again, opting for four midfielders and bringing Dembele back in, with Ansu Fati and Torres among the players to drop out. The result was devastating; not disrupting. Within 22 minutes, Barca had three goals, one each for Dembele, Roberto and Lewandowski, who now has 17 this season. Torres completed the scoring off the bench in the second half.
It is just one week since a defeat to Real Madrid led Xavi to lament the “bad run” Barca were on. They had only scored once in wins against Mallorca and Celta Vigo, taken one point from six against Inter Milan and then lost the Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu. Things are looking rosier again now. They remain on Madrid’s tails at the top of LaLiga, just three points back, and look in good shape going into Wednesday’s game against Bayern Munich.
However, the bad news is they no longer depend on themselves in the Champions League. Even if they beat Bayern 10-0, they will be knocked into the Europa League if Inter beat Viktoria Plzen on the same day.
2. Dembele dazzles with goal and hat-trick of assists
One of the loudest cheers of the night was reserved for Dembele, who opened the scoring and then set up the other three goals. He was given a standing ovation when he was taken off for teenager Pablo Torre, who was introduced for his LaLiga debut.
There was a feeling Dembele needed a performance like this. It has always been clear that, along with Lewandowski, he is part of Xavi’s first-choice attack. Recent displays, though, had started to create some doubts about that, or at least put a little bit of pressure on the French forward. Even Xavi recently said his decision-making still needs to improve.
It certainly improved against Athletic. His goal — his first-ever header in Barca colours — paved the way for the thrashing as he teed up Roberto, Lewandowski and Torres to complete the rout. He now has four goals and seven assists in all competitions this season and can be unplayable in this form.
3. Valverde’s miserable Camp Nou return
Ernesto Valverde won LaLiga twice during his spell as Barcelona coach before he was sacked with the club top of the league in 2019. They have not won the title since. You could have forgiven him for wanting to make an impression on his first professional trip back to Camp Nou since he was fired, but any hopes of that happening were quickly extinguished.
The smile he wore on his face when he greeted Xavi Hernandez prematch did not last long as his team were taken apart. After a brilliant start to the season, which saw Athletic rise to third at one point, they are now winless in four games. A tricky run of fixtures against Sevilla, Atletico Madrid, Getafe and Barca has yielded just two points. There is no need for concern just yet and there is still a feel-good factor around Valverde’s return as coach at San Mames, but a win to settle any nerves soon would be welcomed in Bilbao.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen 6; Roberto 8, Kounde 7, Garcia 6, Balde 8; Busquets 6, De Jong 7,Gavi 6, Pedri 7; Dembele 9, Lewandowski 7
Subs: Kessie 6, Ansu 6, Torres 7, Alonso 6, Torre 6
Athletic Club: Simon 5; De Marcos 4, Alvarez 5, Martinez 5, Yuri 4; Herrera 5, Vesga 5; Nico Williams 6, Zarraga 5, Berenguer 5; Inaki Williams 5
Subs: Dani Garcia 4, Lekue 6, Sancet 6, Raul Garcia 5, Vencedor 5
Best and worst performers
BEST: Dembele, Barcelona.
Dembele was involved in all three goals so he is the standout candidate, but also a word for left-back Alejandro Balde. The 19-year-old is getting better and better. Could he yet force Luis Enrique to consider him for the World Cup?
WORST: Oscar De Marcos, Athletic.
All of Athletic’s back four struggled, especially in the first half. Yuri Berchiche was given a torrid time by Dembele, which was perhaps to be expected. What was not so expected was Balde making De Marcos look like an amateur. Valverde withdrew him after an hour.
Highlights and notable moments
Dembele’s 12th minute header gave Barcelona an early lead.
Lewandowski ➡️ Dembele to put Barca up 1-0 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Mmg7k7EOlO
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 23, 2022
Dembele and Lewandowski combined for Barcelona’s third goal just 22 minutes in.
THE RUN BY DEMBELE. THE FINISH BY LEWA. WHAT A GOAL 😳 pic.twitter.com/wZcjWnDbBM
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 23, 2022
After the match: What the managers, players said
Athletic’s Ernesto Valverde: “We weren’t close to winning, that’s clear. Barça were strong. We tried, at the start, pressing high. They played through it well and punished us. In 10 minutes, three goals. The second kills us a little. I was surprised by Barca’s system. playing with four midfielders and opening the pitch with Balde and Dembele. It caught us out a little.”
Barcelona’s Xavi: “We expected a game with a lot of intensity played at a high rhythm. We knew they would press high so we put in another midfielder to outnumber them through the middle. We wanted an extra man in midfield. I think the key, though, was that we matched them in intensity. Dembele was also good, he made the difference. The team understood what was needed. It was practically over by half time.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
– Sergi Roberto: 4 LaLiga goals over last 2 seasons (3 in previous 10 seasons combined)
– Ousmane Dembele’s headed goal was the 2nd of his club career and first since Feb. 18, 2017.
– Dembele: first Barcelona player with 3 assists and a goal in a LaLiga game since Luis Suarez on Dec. 21, 2019.
– Robert Lewandowski: 12 LaLiga goals this season. Memphis Depay led all Barcelona players with 12 goals in LaLiga last season.
– Barcelona: Its 3 goals are its most in a first half LaLiga game vs Athletic since 2012. Back then, Pique, Messi and Adriano scored 3 first-half goals in a 5-1 victory.
Barcelona: Xavi’s men face a must-win Champions League clash against Bayern Munich on Oct. 26, followed by a LaLiga game against Valencia on Oct. 29, and then the final match of the Champions League group stage against Viktoria Plzen on Nov. 1. Barca’s hopes for knockout stage qualification in the UCL is hanging on a thread as they face dropping down into the Europa League for a second consecutive season.