MADRID • Barcelona manager Luis Enrique admitted that Lionel Messi's second-half goal in the first leg of their King's Cup last-16 tie has breathed life back into their title defence.
Despite Athletic Bilbao finishing the match with nine men, they will take a 2-1 lead to the Nou Camp after securing a first win over Barcelona in four years.
Two goals in three first-half minutes from Aritz Aduriz and Inaki Williams put the hosts in command. Messi's free kick halved Barca's arrears after the break.
And the five-time World Player of the Year was inches away from a precious second away goal when he hit the post with the final kick of the game, after Raul Garcia and Ander Iturraspe had been sent off.
"Given how the game went, the goal breathed life into us," Enrique said. "At the end we deserved the equaliser. It will be difficult but we have to keep a clean sheet (in the second leg)."
He started all three of his star strike force of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar despite handing them an extended winter break which meant they returned to training only on Monday after two weeks off.
This is the sixth time Barca and Bilbao have been paired together in the Cup in nine seasons, including three finals, but Bilbao have never gotten their better of their rivals.
Yet it seemed they might finally succeed this time when Aduriz stooped unmarked to head home Garcia's cross in the 25th minute.
Then, in the midst of a homage to Athletic defender Yeray Alvarez, who was recently diagnosed with testicular cancer, they struck again when Williams smashed home a volley from Aduriz's neat back-heeled layoff.
"I think in the first-half we were much better than them," Williams told GolTV. "The referee left us with nine men, but that is football and we have to suffer. We will go to the Camp Nou and do our best to reach the next round."
The match was then dogged by refereeing controversy as Aduriz escaped unpunished for an elbow on Samuel Umtiti. Barca were even more incensed in first-half stoppage time, when David Fernandez Borbalan somehow failed to point to the spot when Neymar was chopped down by Borja Etxeita.
Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba were all booked for taking their protests too far, while Messi also had to be restrained from confronting Borbalan as the players left the field for half-time.
No side other than Real Madrid have eliminated Barca from the Cup since 2008 but the holders will need to turn the tie around on home soil on Wednesday.