Ernesto Valverde admitted his gamble to rest Lionel Messi backfired on Saturday as Barcelona drew 1-1 at home to Athletic Bilbao to make it three games without a victory.
Messi came on in the 55th minute at the Camp Nou and it was the Argentinian’s shot that was turned in by another substitute, Munir El Haddadi, with six minutes left to play.
By then, however, Oscar de Marcos had given Bilbao a deserved first-half lead and despite a late rally, Messi and Barca could not find a winner.
After drawing at home to Girona and being beaten by Leganes, Barca will head to Wembley to face Tottenham in the Champions League on Wednesday short of rhythm and lacking confidence.
They will also be without Sergi Roberto. Barcelona confirmed after the game he had picked up a thigh strain.
The last time Bilbao took a point at the Camp Nou, Valverde was sitting in the away team’s dug-out, in 2004, during his first spell as Bilbao coach.
Now in charge at Barca, he will have questions to answer, having made the bold decision to rest Messi with Spurs in mind, along with Sergio Busquets. Barca will surrender top spot in La Liga if Real Madrid beat Atletico in the city derby later on Saturday. Bilbao moves up to 14th.
“Leaving Messi on the bench is absolutely my responsibility,” Valverde said. “He has four games in 10 days and I think it’s good for Leo to rest, like Busquets, thinking of the Champions League.
“I know it was the right decision. It was a risk and on this occasion, it didn’t come off.” Lack of rotation was chief among the criticisms levelled at Valverde after they crashed out of the Champions League quarter-finals last season, with Luis Suarez admitting he regrets playing 90 minutes against Leganes, three days before the collapse against Roma.
Valverde has certainly acted. Of the preferred 11 that started a 4-0 win over PSV Eindhoven two weeks ago, might have started at least one of the three games since on the bench. The trouble is that seven of those have been required to come on as substitutes.
“We can’t expect Messi just to come on and fix things,” Suarez said. “We should have won the game before he came on, that’s why we are Barca.” Bilbao took the lead in the 41st minute and could have scored earlier. Inaki Williams’ attempted lob had Marc-Andre ter Stegen beaten but drifted wide. Ter Stegen had to push Raul Garcia’s effort over and was then rounded by Williams but the angle proved too tight.
Finally, four minutes before half-time, Ousmane Dembele conceded possession and Markel Susaeta’s cross was perfectly weighted to evade the scrambling Sergi Roberto at the back post, where De Marcos slid the ball home.
Valverde waited until 10 minutes after the break before introducing Messi and Busquets. Sergi and Arturo Vidal made way, the latter with a glare and shake of the head.
Messi got to work. His bending free-kick looked destined for the corner, only for De Marcos to head off the line and another shot hit the post.
Munir replaced Dembele and made the difference. Messi shot twice, the first scrambled away by Simon but the second fizzed across the face of goal for Munir to divert in.
Barca wanted a winner and they had six minutes to find one. There was to be no late drama, however, as Bilbao claimed a well-deserved point.