Barcelona lost their second straight game without injured star Lionel Messi when Athletic Bilbao handed the defending Spanish league champions a 0-1 loss on Sunday at the San Mames.
Forward Iker Muniain scored the winner in the 70th minute after Bilbao’s incessant pressure recovered the ball and sparked a counterattack inside Barcelona’s half.
Neymar was once again tagged to pick up Messi’s goal-scoring duties, but when he was not frustrated by slippery footing, Bilbao’s defense got the better of him.
Barcelona were left level on points with Atletico Madrid and three points ahead of Real Madrid after their rivals for the title won on Saturday.
Barcelona’s first defeat in the domestic league following 13 wins and one draw came five days after they lost 1-2 to a 10-man Ajax in the UEFA Champions League.
Barcelona had not suffered consecutive defeats since March.
“When you lose, there are always doubts and questions that arise, but one game had nothing to do with the other,” Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta said. “We have to correct our mistakes. It’s a loss. That can happen. We shouldn’t see it any other way.”
Gerardo Martino’s team has won once and lost twice since Messi suffered a left hamstring injury that will likely keep him out until January, and while Barcelona sputter, Atletico and Madrid keep on churning out wins.
“This team isn’t used to losing two consecutive games,” Martino said. “We came here with the intention of rebounding from the first loss, so it’s a shame not to win after we did enough to deserve it. Until Bilbao scored, we were the better side, controlling the ball and creating chances for long stretches. After their goal it was a different game.”
Also on Sunday, Valencia beat 10-man CA Osasuna 3-0, Sevilla won 2-1 at Granada and Rayo Vallecano de Madrid drew 2-2 at Real Betis Balompie.
The match was billed as perhaps the toughest test of the season for Barcelona, coming off their first setback in 21 games and without Messi, goalkeeper Victor Valdes, and defenders Dani Alves, Carles Puyol and Jordi Alba.
So it proved to be, as Bilbao stayed undefeated in seven games at their San Mames Barria. The victory lifted them into fourth place and into the final UEFA Champions League spot.
Like so many times in past meetings between the Basque and Catalan clubs, the pace remained frenetic and intense, with the ball constantly changing sides until Bilbao took charge late. Barcelona faded after falling behind.
“I think we played a complete game from start to finish. I am very happy to have done my part to get the win by scoring the goal,” said the 20-year-old Muniain, who added that Bilbao were aided by Barcelona playing a game in midweek and arriving with wearier legs.
Early on, Barcelona coolly worked their way through Bilbao’s pressure and just past the 10-minute mark deployed a number of one-touch passes in a series of attacks that went unrewarded.
Neymar had a strike palmed over the bar by Bilbao goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz in the 12th minute, before Iniesta spoiled a back-heeled flip by Sergio Busquets by firing wide.
Then it was Bilbao’s turn and Muniain had a golden chance to put the hosts ahead in the 29th minute, but he barely made contact on a deflected cross that reached him with only goalkeeper Jose Pinto to beat.
Barcelona looked to hit Bilbao on the break, but Neymar slipped several times while trying to dribble and had to change his boots in the 34th minute.