Dembele dazzles with goal, hat-trick of assists as Barca cruise to victory
5: 37 PM ET
Sam MarsdenBarcelona correspondent
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. After the break, they added a fourth player.
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 not disruptive but devastating. Within 22 minutes, Barca had three goals, one each for Dembele, Roberto and Lewandowski, who now has 17 this season. Torres completed scoring from the bench in the second period. Xavi lamented the “bad run” Barca had been on just one week ago when they lost to Real Madrid. 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 brighter 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. The bad news is that they can no longer depend on themselves in 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. Dembele felt he needed to perform like this. It has been obvious that Dembele is, together with Lewandowski’s, part of Xavi’s first-choice attack. However, recent displays have started to raise doubts about this, or at the very least put some pressure on the French forward. Even Xavi said recently that his decision-making needs to improve.
It definitely improved against Athletic. His goal, his first ever header in Barca colours, opened the way to the thrashing. He teed up Roberto Lewandowski, Torres and Lewandowski 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 ever since. It would have been easy to forgive him for trying to make an impression on Camp Nou’s first professional trip since his firing. However, any hopes of that happening were quickly dashed.
The smile he wore prematch to greet Xavi Hernandez was short-lived as his team was dismantled. After a great start to the season that saw Athletic rise to third at one stage, they are now winless after four games. Only two points have been earned after a difficult run of fixtures against Sevilla and Atletico Madrid, Getafe, and Barca. There is no reason to be concerned and there is still a feeling of good around Valverde’s return to San Mames as coach. However, a win in Bilbao would be a welcome relief.
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. He could force Luis Enrique into considering 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. Balde made De Marcos look like an amateur, which was not what was expected. After an hour, Valverde pulled him out.
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. Barca were strong. We tried to push high at the beginning. They persevered and punished us. In 10 minutes, three goals. The second is a bit too much for us. Barca’s system surprised me. I was able to play with four midfielders, and opened the pitch with Dembele and Balde. It was a bit unexpected. “
Barcelona’s Xavi: “We expected a game with a lot of intensity played at a high rhythm. We knew they would press hard so we added another midfielder to help them out in the middle. We needed an extra man in the midfield. The key was to match their intensity. Dembele was also a great player. He made a difference. The team was able to understand what was required. It was almost 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. Pique, Messi, and Adriano scored three goals in the first half to win 5-1.
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 chances of qualifying for the Europa League knockout stage are in jeopardy as they face dropping into the second consecutive season.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.