Lionel Messi, Philippe Coutinho both 8/10 in comfortable win over Bilbao
Paco Alcacer and Lionel Messi scored in a comfortable 2-0 win for Barcelona at home to Athletic Bilbao which took the Catalans ever closer to the league title.
Ernesto Valverde's side were unstoppable in the first half against his former club as Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho struck the woodwork and Athletic goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga made a couple of impressive saves. They played with less intensity in the second half, perhaps feeling the effect of their relentless schedule, but still kept a clean sheet and can now take a well-deserved two-week break for international friendlies before what is sure to be a grueling April.
Barca barely missed Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez due to strong displays from Ivan Rakitic and Paco Alcacer and still enjoy an 11-point lead at the top of the league with only nine games remaining in the campaign.
Barca have hammered the woodwork all season long and it came between them three times here, depriving Coutinho especially of a deserved goal or two.
Manager rating (out of 10)
8 -- Valverde had two decisions to make due to Busquets' injury and Suarez's suspension and got both right as Rakitic held the fort in midfield and Alcacer broke the deadlock after eight minutes. He made a wise move in not starting a clearly overworked Iniesta but gave him a reminder of how much the fans love him and don't want him to leave.
Player ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 7 -- The German wasn't required to make any outstanding saves but he had to stay alert for most of the second half as Athletic finally came into the game. His reliable footwork came in handy as his defenders were happy to knock the ball towards him whenever they came under pressure.
DF Sergi Roberto, 7 -- Gave another consistent display that should ensure he remains a regular starter when Nelson Semedo returns from injury.
DF Gerard Pique, 7 -- Has hit peak form just at the right moment in the campaign and showed no signs of the knee problems that dogged him a few weeks ago.
DF Samuel Umtiti, 6 -- Was up for the physical battle and got involved in a few scrapes, receiving a yellow card for a confrontation with Unai Nunez. Made an important block to thwart Sabin Merino in the second half.
DF Jordi Alba, 8 -- Had an outstanding game, and not just for his assist. He was a colossus in defence, constantly making interceptions and well-timed tackles to keep Athletic at bay, no small feat for a player as small as him against a side as physical as the Basques.
MF Ousmane Dembele, 7 -- Had a quieter display than against Malaga and Chelsea but showed more signs he is improving and linking up better with teammates, demonstrated by his layoff for Messi's goal. Should have scored himself when he fired straight at Athletic goalkeeper Kepa and picked up a booking for dissent in the first half.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 7 -- The Croatian was tasked with playing a deeper role than usual due to the absence of Busquets and he did an admirable job, ensuring Athletic were rarely on the front foot in the first half.
MF Paulinho, 7 -- His physical presence came in handy and he was more ambitious in attack than in recent weeks, playing a delicious chipped pass to Coutinho that he hit the bar with and later striking a post himself from outside the box.
MF Philippe Coutinho, 8 -- The Brazilian is really growing into the team and again showed his capacity to create danger out of nothing. He was very unlucky not to score in the first half with either of his two strikes against the bar.
FW Lionel Messi, 8 -- The Argentine could well be at the peak of his career and once again he was at the heart of everything Barca did in attack. He also appears to be enjoying himself more than ever if his dance after scoring his 25th league goal of the season is anything to go by.
FW Paco Alcacer, 7 -- Struck a first goal in three months in a rare starting berth and looks to be on the same page as his teammates in contrast to most of last season. Faded a little in the second half when Barca took their foot off the gas.
MF Andres Iniesta, 7 -- The captain was given a rousing reception from the Camp Nou faithful when he came on for Dembele, a clear demonstration that they would like him to reject the offer from China which he admitted he is mulling over at the moment. His patience on the ball also served the team well just as Athletic were starting to gain in confidence.
MF Aleix Vidal, NR -- Replaced Alcacer and gave the team an extra dose of energy in attack.
MF Andre Gomes, NR -- Given another touching reception from the fans after revealing his mental struggles last week but didn't have enough time to demonstrate his quality.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.