Ernesto Valverde’s return to the Basque Country will be one he remembers with fondness after witnessing his Barcelona side come from 2-0 down to secure a stunning 4-2 win against Real Sociedad on Sunday evening.
The 53-year-old will have watched many memorable victories during his four-year spell with Athletic Bilbao while residing in northern Spain, however he may never have overseen a more satisfying and talent-brimmed performance in the region.
As his side trudged off in the rain 2-1 down at half-time, with Willian Jose and Juanmi putting the hosts ahead before Paulinho pulled one back shortly before the break, it looked as though the Anoeta Stadium was to strike again – with Barca having not won in the league at the home of Txuri-urdinak since 2007.
However, a sensational second-half display, which was littered with world-class finishes from Luis Suarez, who grabbed two, and Lionel Messi gave Blaugrana a famous victory and ensured they retained their status as the only side in Europe’s top five leagues who are still unbeaten.
As expected, it was a bright start from the visitors, with both Luis Suarez and Sergi Roberto finding avenues of opportunity within the opening five minutes.
However, the greasy turf provided solace for Txuri-urdinak goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, who was quick to advance from his goal-line on both occasions to smother any danger.
But the 25-year-old’s actions proved pivotal shortly after the 10-minute mark, as the hosts took the lead, again using the conditions to their advantage.
Sociedad spread play out to the right-hand side, with possession landing at the feet of captain Xabi Prieto, before the veteran Spaniard picked his head up and whipped in a dangerous ball towards the direction of Jose, who had taken advantage of Roberto tucking in as part of the narrow Barca back four.
The Brazilian latched onto the cross, despite pressure from the chasing Paulinho, and directed his header towards the floor, which skipped off the rain sodden pitch and over the flailing arm of Marc-Andre ter Stegen to mark only the eight goal Blaugrana had conceded this season, but the bullish frontman’s 13th of the campaign – and 10th with his head.
Following the opener, the hosts’ offensive barrage continued, with Sergio Canales forcing a duo of smart saves from the Catalonian’s shot-stopper with attempts from range, while Jose had his second of the night ruled out after referee Jose Luis Gonzalez Gonzalez awarded Valverde’s side a dubious free-kick on their own area as the ball found the back of the net.
However, three minutes after the half-hour mark Txuri-urdinak’s lead was indeed doubled, as Juanmi’s perfectly timed diagonal run off the shoulder of the static Roberto was found by Canales, before the 24-year-old’s skewed attempt on goal from a tight angle flicked off the 25-year-old Spaniard and past Ter Stegen at his near post.
But just five minutes later Sociedad’s advantage was reduced to one once again, as Paulinho was found by Suarez through a simple squared ball across the face of goal to net for the eighth time in La Liga this season and to send his side into the break, somehow, still comfortably in the contest.
The second 45 started with a similar tempo to how the first ended, with the hosts again testing Ter Stegen’s alertness early on through a long-range bending attempt from Canales.
However, the Germany international was able to clutch the whipped shot into his chest, which is a lot more than his opposite number, Rulli, was able to do when faced with Suarez moments later.
The Uruguayan was fed by Lionel Messi, whose darting run through the centre created space on the left-hand side, before the former Liverpool striker was fed possession just inside the area, opened up his body and deftly curled a simply sensational chip over the flat-footed custodian to claw Blaugrana level.
After Valverde’s side equalised the heavens opened, and the biblical rain added to the already scintillating contest, which was injected with even more drama as the tie approached its final 20 minutes, with Suarez completing Barcelona’s comeback to put the league leaders ahead.
A poor clearance from Rulli, who had ample time to pick a target, was headed straight back towards goal by Thomas Vermaelen, with the Uruguayan reacting quickest and latching onto the through ball before slotting his effort past the spread Argentine to grab his second of the evening and seventh in his last five outings.
However, no matter how special Suarez’s equaliser was, Messi, of course, had to have his say on a historic night for the Catalonians by wrapping up all three points for his side.
It was the aforementioned striker who was floored around 30 yards from goal, affording the Argentine wizard the opportunity to compose himself before finessing his spectacular free-kick into Rulli’s top right-hand corner.
The three points reinstates Barcelona’s nine-point gap over second-place Atletico Madrid, while their Spanish capital neighbours, Real Madrid, fall 19 points behind, and can safely class themselves as out of the La Liga title race for this year.