BILBAO, Spain – Barcelona’s two-year reign of the Copa del Rey was in jeopardy after it lost to a nine-man Athletic Bilbao 2-1 at a packed San Mames Stadium Thursday.
Athletic played a man down from the 74th minute, and two men down from the 80th because of red cards in a drama-filled first-leg match in the round of 16.
Aritz Aduriz scored and set up another goal in the first half for Athletic, and Lionel Messi scored for Barcelona from a free kick early in the second half. Messi hit the post from inside the area three minutes into stoppage time, and Paco Alcacer missed the open net off the ensuing rebound.
Athletic beat Barcelona for only the third time in 32 matches over the last 10 years. In that period, Barcelona has beaten Athletic in three Copa del Rey finals, won its last three league matches, and won both legs of its quarterfinal matchup last year.
But a draw next week in the second leg at Camp Nou will be enough to send Athletic to the quarterfinals.
Athletic took control early as Aduriz’s header opened the scoring in the 25th, and Inaki Williams padded the lead after a pass by Aduriz in the 28th.
Messi pulled Barcelona closer by converting a free kick in the 52nd, with the ball just barely crossing the line after a save attempt by Athletic goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz.
Second yellow cards by midfielders Raul Garcia and Ander Iturraspe reduced Athletic, which had to endure a siege by the visitors.
Athletic’s only loss at San Mames this season was against Barcelona in its first home game in the league. Since then, it has won 10 games and drawn one.
In other first-leg matches, Real Madrid defeated Sevilla 3-0 at home Wednesday, while visiting Atletico Madrid beat Las Palmas 2-0 Tuesday.
All return matches are next week.
Mahrez is African Footballer of the Year
Algeria forward Riyad Mahrez was Thursday voted African Footballer of the Year after he inspired Leicester City to the English Premier League title last season.
Mahrez, 25, beat Gabon skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who scooped the prestigious accolade last year, into second place, with Senegal star Sadio Mane, who features for Liverpool, taking third place.
Goalkeeper Denis Onyango was picked for the African Player of the Year Based in Africa award ahead of Mamelodi Sundowns teammate Khama Billiat and Zambia’s Rainford Kalaba.
Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala grabbed her second African Women’s Player of the Year award on the back of her goals as Nigeria retained its continental crown in Cameroon.
Nigeria youngsters Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi won the Most Promising Talent and Youth Player of the Year awards, respectively.
Gambian referee Bakary Papa Gassama won the Best Referee Award for the third straight year. – Agencies