This Sunday evening will pit FC Barcelona up against Athletic Bilbao, in what could be the toughest match to date in the Blaugrana’s season. Bilbao are on a fine run of form and after a shaky start under Marcelo Bielsa, the Basque’s are unbeaten in their last six league matches. Trips to San Mames are difficult at any time, though Barcelona can count themselves lucky that this particular match comes just before the international break.
Aside from the absence of Pedro and Ibrahim Afellay, Barcelona will be at full-strength, and given the last couple of matches, they appear to be nearing top form. Lionel Messi is looking for a third consecutive hat-trick and with Xavi and Andres Iniesta likely to return to the starting line-up, it is certainly a possibility. Victor Valdes is still guarding that unbeaten record, and now that Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique have returned, Barca will be even harder to break down.
I am expecting a 4-3-3, with Valdes in goal and Dani Alves at right-back. Aside from that, Guardiola has a few options for the defense. He could pair Puyol and Pique together, but considering Javier Mascherano’s form as of late, he could partner Pique with Mascherano. Alternatively Pep could move Eric Abidal into the centre to combat the aerial threat that Bilbao pose.
It’s a nice problem to have, and I see Guardiola opting for Pique and Mascherano with Eric Abidal retaining his place at left-back. Ahead of that, it should be Sergio Busquets. However, you never truly know with Guardiola. It could be Seydou Keita, maybe even Mascherano in the holding role. The midfield battle is likely to be more physical than usual, and whether he trusts Busquets to throw his weight around instead of to the floor is beyond me. That being said, I would still opt for Sergio.
Andres Iniesta is fresh off a two-game break and should be restored to his usual position. To think that Barcelona have been so dominant without their first-choice midfield partnership is worrying for any opposition. Iniesta was in scintillating form prior to his rest, but how will it have impacted him?
Will Iniesta come back reinvigorated and hit even loftier heights? Or will he be a little rusty?
I tend to think the former is the more likely situation, and his creativity may be vital on Sunday night. Alongside him, there are question marks over Xavi Hernandez, though no official word either way. Some reports suggest that his omission from the past couple of games is due to an injury may be unfounded, but considering his recent troubles, it may be best to err on the side of caution with the Maestro’s fitness.
A two-game break should have been sufficient for any niggling injuries, and to be honest, we need Xavi back in the line-up. The match against Plzen was great, but ball retention had dropped without Xavi to control things in midfield. Thiago and Cesc did their best, but neither could replicate his omnipotence in the middle of the park. Despite his slight stature, Xavi controls the midfield in each and every game he plays. In such a hostile atmosphere his calm head and pinpoint accuracy may be the difference between one point and all three.
When we get to the attack, one phrase comes to mind. "If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it."
The trio of Adriano, Isaac Cuenca and Lionel Messi have started the last couple of games, scoring goals a plenty en route. Barcelona have struggled on their travels in the league, with Lionel Messi the obvious example of that. Top scorer with 13 goals, La Pulga is yet to score away from the comforts of the Camp Nou. In the last two games, Messi has set about dismissing the critics (again) and this is another opportunity for him to showcase his ability.
To score at San Mames is a feat in itself, and it will not be easy for Messi, nor any other Barcelona player. Gorka Irazoiz is a top-class goal-keeper, and ahead of him is a stubborn defense. Fernando Amorebieta scored the winner for Venezuela in their recent match against Argentina, and his suitors reportedly included Liverpool and AC Milan in years gone by. Qualifying for Bilbao through his parents, he is a no-nonsense defender quite similar to Carles Puyol.
On the right-hand side is Andoni Iraola. I think of Iraola as a Dani Alves type figure for Bilbao, and this may be a reason for Adriano to start. The Brazilian is equally adept at full-back, and should he start on the left-hand side, Iraola’s impact may be lessened. Javi Martinez is back for the Basque’s and Bielsa will hope that Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente will be able to start and complete the 90 minutes.
Llorente is getting back to his best, and is likely to be Bilbao’s biggest threat, although he will have to contend with his manager, Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentine is one of football’s best coaches, and although he alienates some with his eccentric approach, he knows his stuff. Bilbao have been revolutionised by his methods, with an emphasis on possession football over the physicality of previous years.
In truth, Athletic Bilbao should be a massive threat to the Blaugrana’s unbeaten record, but it depends on Bielsa. To fight fire with fire and opt for the possession game would be suicide, but a physical battle would clearly favour the Basque’s. Marcelo Bielsa may be nicknamed loco for a reason, but I guess we see just how loco he is on Sunday evening.
Match Prediction: Barcelona to win 3-0 with goals from Leo Messi and Andres Iniesta.