Pep Guardiola called it un canto al fútbol – a song of praise, an ode to the game. When the final whistle went night, the Barcelona coach leant towards Athletic Bilbao's manager Marcelo Bielsa and shouted over the deafening noise into his ear. Behind them, thousands of fans dressed in bright bin bags, rain rushing off them, applauded wildly, vacating their seat to start a standing ovation. "Your players," Guardiola said, his voice breaking, "are beasts." So, Bielsa replied, are yours. And then they embraced. The players embraced too, exhausted and elated, disappointed but delighted.
Athletic Bilbao versus Barcelona had been set up like a reunion of long lost lovers, kindred spirits – a pair of poets reunited in verse. The appreciation was mutual and it was everywhere. Yes, there's Johan Cruyff and Charly Rexach and Juanma Lillo, but here was another master against apprentice moment for Pep Guardiola. The Barcelona coach was meeting his guru. One of them, anyway. This was the first time he had competed against Bielsa, the man he travelled to Argentina to meet in October 2006. Their conversation lasted 11 long hours – "and", said Guardiola, who has clearly never seen Punto Pelota, Spain's late-night footballing mass debate, "you don't talk for that long if it's not agreeable and worthwhile".
They had talked film and football: Bielsa watches two movies a day. They had run through man-marking routines using a chair in the garden. And for all that the Argentinian warned Guardiola that there would be blood, and more work than he could find time to do, the Catalan emerged more convinced that coaching was for him.
Many of the ideas he applied – from high pressure to not talking to the media one on one – were Bielsa's. The philosophy was shared – and philosophy is the word. "I would have liked to have played under him: he is different to everyone else," Guardiola said. "I'll forever be grateful." "Under Guardiola, Barcelona are an innovative artistic expression that's generated a culture – a counterculture," Bielsa said.
It promised to be a fascinating clash. But promises are so often broken. This one was not. On Saturday afternoon, Guardiola had predicted a game that would be "fantastic, up and down, up and down", and that was exactly what it was. From 1-0 to Athletic to 1-1, from 2-1 to Athletic to 2-2. A fourth 2-2 draw in eight away games for Barcelona but a different one this time – a game that Guardiola called "spectacular". And he was not alone. Probably the game of the season so far. Together, Athletic Club de Bilbao and Fútbol Club Barcelona had erected a "monument" to football, according to Marca. AS called it "memorable"; El Mundo, a "homage"; El País, a "symphony". A "bittersweet" one, Bielsa said.
In fact, it was bittersweet for everyone. Special, too: a game that started brilliantly got less brilliant yet more barmy, as the rain collected on the turf, and never stopped being fun. Fast, intense and often inspired. Brilliant goals and dreadful mistakes. Tactical twists and no one wanting to stick. Fouls and saves and misses. Slide tackles so fast, so long, and so slidey that they still haven't come to a standstill, water spraying everywhere. Players wading through the water. Fernando Llorente, a great, blond hunk of a man with half his shirt clinging soaked to his skin, the other torn open to reveal his torso like some kind of cartoon Corinthian. Fernando Amorebieta overtaking the club's president to become the most sent-off man in Athletic's history and Víctor Valdés failing to break the record for the longest unbeaten run, conceding after 897 minutes. Messi showing that perhaps he can do it on a cold, wet night, after all.
Javier Mascherano slips, Markel Susaeta sprints behind him and Ander Herrera curls in a glorious shot. Abidal crosses and Cesc Fábregas leaps like he is the Athletic player, crashing in a header. Messi dinks it to Iniesta and Iniesta misses it. Iker Muniaín does too, slipping on the turf and on the turn, clean through. A clever free-kick, Xavi runs, the defender runs with him and Alves shoots.
Gorka saves. And again. And again. The pressure's asphyxiating – and high. Barcelona cannot play out; urgency is enforced upon their game – one that is often anaesthetising rather than electric. When that pressure is broken, by both teams, the pitch opens out and the pace quickens still more. Adrián pulls on Iraola's shirt. Mascherano, under pressure, decides he wants to keep possession. He turns and plays it to Valdés. Instead, the ball flies straight out of play. The corner misses Valdés but not Abidal and not Piqué; in it goes at the wrong end – 2-1.
The clock ticks. Barcelona head towards their first defeat this season; their first in 23 games. More players get put on, more talent. Andrés Iniesta hits the side netting. Lionel Messi hits the wall. And then Messi slots it to Iniesta. He can't control it. Nor can Gorka, skidding out of his goal. The ball slips loose, Messi scores. It is the 91st minute. It is his first away goal in La Liga since April, and it is a gift.
Just as two of the other three have been. Yet they have been beauties too, and there is something joyous about it all. "It is hard to take because we were so close to winning," said Bielsa, "but it was lovely – I really enjoyed the battles all over the pitch." He brilliantly summed up how his players when he was asked why it took him so long to make any changes. "Because," he replied, "I wanted to take off someone who wasn't playing well or wasn't running. And there wasn't anyone." "Today more than ever I am proud of my team: how could we be anything other than pleased when you see what the 22 players did tonight," Guardiola says, speaking for both managers and excusing his disappearing voice: "I'm just not there." Nor, right now, are Barcelona: they currently trail Real Madrid by three points at the top. But there are no recriminations. "This was a great game against a great team," adds Fábregas.
That team is Bielsa's team; there was something so very Athletic Bilbao about last night – the rain, the power, the intensity, the drama, the sense of epic. But there was something Bielsa about it too: the identity is becoming clearer. Up in the stands, the former coach Javier Clemente – the man many love to hate, dismissing him as ultra-defensive, the long ball merchant who years ago coined the phrase tiki-taka as a rabid rejection of so much pointless passing – was stifling a yawn. And although it was facile and unfair, some could not resist drawing the conclusion that the yawn said it all.
When he arrived at Athletic, Bielsa had watched every game from last season twice. Spreadsheets contained details on every player at the club – and every player who could be signed for the club too. In training sessions, he divides the pitch up into squares and runs through drills where they sprint after the ball in packs of three or four players, while he preaches the need for the pressure to arrive before the pass has gone. Together they race towards to a designated point like a bomb disposal team, sprinting to deactivate that device before it blows. Intensity is his great obsession.
The fear among some players is that Athletic, whose squad is short and who have just lost Carlos Gurpegui for virtually the whole season, cannot maintain the physical level that Bielsa's approach demands. And yet on Sunday night they did. Barcelona had the better chances – despite the late equaliser they may feel that they should never have been in the position that they needed to chase the game – but on a wet pitch that was first fast and then slow, something to wade through not walk across, Athletic's intensity was startling – and that despite the fact that they were in Europa League action on Thursday night, two days later than Barcelona played in the Champions League. It is working, too: that run of no wins in their opening five league games, broken by the derby victory over Real Sociedad, looks a long way away now. Athletic have gone 10 unbeaten in all competitions, and if drawing three of their past six in the league does not sound so impressive, two of those were against Valencia and Barcelona.
"Athletic is recognisably Bielsa's team now," Guardiola said. "You witness Llorente running 40 yards back to his goal or Iker Muniaín do 20 sprints of 40 metres, up and down, up and down. They deny you space and time so well, and they take you on, one on one, all over the pitch. They're beasts. I have never played against a team so intense."
• It was not the first embarrassing photo taken by a player in his hotel room to then appear on the internet, but this time it was different: this time the club could not be happier for it to be splashed all over the newspapers and on websites everywhere. On their own website, in fact. There was Iker Casillas, wrapped up in bed, pretending to be asleep under his duvet cover. Sergio Ramos on the phone.
Gonzalo Higuaín yawning. Real Madrid's social networking sites were full of pictures of players getting ready for bed, proving that it was an early night all round. Why? Because they were playing Osasuna at noon on Sunday. And everyone was going completely bonkers.
Now, noon kick-offs are not that new. Mallorca, Osasuna, Atlético Madrid, Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano, Getafe, Espanyol, Athletic, Real Sociedad and Sporting have all had to play at noon this season. But of course it doesn't really count until Real Madrid or Barcelona do. So this weekend you would think it was the first time ever, ever, in the history of the world that anyone played at 12. You'd also think they were landing on the moon, not just playing a football match a little early. Never mind the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo pointed out, quite logically, that he would rather play at noon than at 10 o'clock at night, this was a revolution. Treated like some kind of freak occurrence.
The idea of course is to capture the market in the far east. A kind of Good Morning Vietnam. And China. And Japan. Madrid have long been keen; Barcelona on the other hand are not. And it worked too: fans in Spain did not seem to mind that much – the Bernabéu was full for only the second time this season – and figures suggest that 60 million Chinese watched the game. Mind you, that figure, like Beyoncé's, looked suspiciously round and not entirely convincing. This morning, one paper claims 120 million, 60 million in Beijing alone. Beijing's population is 19million. And José Mourinho afterwards thanked the fans at the south end of the ground for chanting because "otherwise I would have thought the stadium was empty".
It did not do Madrid any harm. They murdered Osasuna with another brilliant performance, winning 7-1. Ronaldo got another hat-trick – this is getting silly now – and there were two for Karim Benzema plus three Angel Di María assists and two for Alvaro Arbeloa.
• Madrid's game kicking off at noon meant that if you were that way inclined – and frankly this column was until it realised it was, sadly, impossible – you could do a 12-hour day watching live football in Madrid this Sunday, travelling back and forth on the Metro. And after a desperate Saturday made up of two eyeball-gauging 0-0s and a Valencia derby that was largely entertaining just because it was dirty, it would have been pretty good too. It started at midday and ended at midnight, with kick-offs at 12, 4 and 10 in Chamartín, Vallecas and Getafe, and produced 17 goals. Rayo Vallecano beat Real Sociedad 4-0, with Michu claiming: "Others can beat us for budget and talent and even clothes but no one beats us for bollocks." And the "derby of the south [of Madrid]" – attended by, oooh, at least a hundred people – was won 3-2 by Getafe. Which is going some considering that Atlético Madrid were a goal up and a man up with an hour to play. "This was a complete disaster," muttered Gregorio Manzano as his president sneaked up behind him, a knife in his hand.
• Sergio Ballesteros is back … the original Sergio Ballesteros; the hard and frankly pretty scary one, booting people and stuff. Until now he had not been nearly as dirty as his reputation suggests. But the Valencia derby was pretty tasty – a game in which the ball was in the air and the players on the floor. Virtually all game, too. And this time, in truth, he was his old self.
As for Levante: it's now properly all over. They have lost two in a row. Valencia, whose coach had a whinging letter from the supporters' clubs a week or so back, are only one point behind Barcelona and unbeaten in six league games.
Results: Real Madrid 7-1 Osasuna, Levante 0-2 Valencia, Zaragoza 2-2 Sporting, Espanyol 0-0 Villarreal, Rayo Vallecano 4-0 Real Sociedad, Athletic 2-2 Barcelona, Getafe 3-2 Atlético, Mallorca 0-0 Sevilla, Betis 0-0 Málaga, Granada 0-0 Racing.