BARCELONA: Memphis Depay showed just why coach Ronald Koeman urged Barcelona for months to sign the Netherlands striker after scoring with a blistering strike Saturday to help his team avoid its first defeat of the post-Messi era with a 1-1 draw.
Depay’s goal from a tight angle came with Barcelona playing poorly against an Athletic Bilbao team inspired by having some fans in the stands of San Mamés for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
The draw at Bilbao came after Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 4-2 last weekend in its first match since the club had to let Lionel Messi walk away to sign for Paris Saint-Germain due to its financial situation.
Depay, who arrived as a free agent this summer, gained possession on a rare counterattack from Barcelona after Sergio Busquets recovered the ball. Taking a pass from Sergi Roberto in his stride, Depay drove a left-footed shot over goalkeeper Julen Agirrezabala and into the top of the net in the 75th minute.
“(Depay) is a great player, that is why we signed him,” Koeman said after the match. “He scored a great goal today. He is an important player for us. He is strong, fast and is a good finisher.”
Bilbao had gone ahead in the 50th when defender Iñigo Martínez headed home one of a slew of corner kicks the hosts generated with their high-paced attack.
Other than the fine goal by Depay, the trip to Bilbao showed how costly letting Messi go could be in terms of results, even if it does help the club that is $1.6 billion in debt.
Bilbao, which only has players from the northern Basque Country region and neighboring provinces, dominated long stretches of the match.
Other than a poor miss by Martin Braithwaite, after he was set up by Depay following his dribble past two defenders, the first hour was all about Bilbao’s pressure that disrupted the visitors’ attack.
For Koeman, Messi sure would have helped.
“I don’t like always talking about the same thing, but it is true, opponents are more scared if they are facing Messi than if not, and we notice it too,” Koeman said. “With Leo you normally don’t lose the ball and in the first half we lost a lot of balls when we couldn’t break their pressure.”
Bilbao’s Oihan Sancet hit the crossbar in the 11th. Moments later Frenkie de Jong’s timely slide blocked a point-blank chance by Iñaki Williams after goalkeeper Neto had lost possession inside his own box.
Barcelona lost Gerard Pique to a left-leg injury after half an hour. He was replaced by Ronald Araújo, who blocked a strike early in the second half by Álex Berenguer after Williams drew Neto off his line.
After Martínez headed in Iker Muniain’s cross from one of 13 corners by Bilbao, compared to two for Barcelona, Koeman looked for answers by changing his lineup. The 18-year-old Yusuf Demir made his competitive debut as a second-half substitute.
But only when Bilbao’s players began to tire did Barcelona find its way back into the game.
De Jong hit the crossbar with an audacious chipped shot from the edge of the box moments before Depay struck the equalizer.
Depay came close to scoring the winner in the 86th after a similar counterattack started by another ball stolen by Busquets, only for his shot to roll past the far post.
Barcelona lost defender Eric García in the final seconds of the match after he was shown a direct red card for fouling substitute Nico Williams with only goalkeeper Neto to beat.
Some 10,000 spectators, all wearing masks and separated from one another by empty seats, were allowed to attend the match by regional authorities for the first time since March 2020.
“We let three points slip away against a great team,” Bilbao’s Martínez said.
SOLER FROM THE SPOT
Carlos Soler earned another point for Valencia after converting an 88th-minute penalty to snatch a 1-1 draw at Granada.
Soler had also converted a penalty in Valencia’s 1-0 victory over Getafe to start the season.
A goal by Mallorca forward Fer Niño with 10 minutes to play gave the Balearic Islands club a 1-0 victory at Alavés, its first win since its return to the first division.
Alavés lost defender Rubén Duarte to a second booking in the 66th.
Villarreal and Espanyol continued to struggle in attack after a 0-0 draw, a second scoreless stalemate for both sides.