FC Barcelona play host to Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao tomorrow, as they look to keep the heat on league leaders Real Madrid. Both sides played in European competition midweek, enjoying varying levels of success, with Barcelona struggling in a 0-0 draw at the San Siro, while Bilbao put their domestic woes behind them with a gutsy comeback win away to Schalke. Considering the difficulty that Bielsa’s side posed in the first encounter between the two sides, this match couldn’t come at a worse time, what with that pivotal second-leg against Milan lying in wait, but there is "good news" in that Athletic only played yesterday.
The decision for this match to be played on a Saturday has been met with claims of a conspiracy, unsurprisingly levelled by the Madrid press. "How is it fair that Bilbao get less than two days rest?" is the universal outcry from the pro-Madridista press, although the cries would be taken a little more seriously if 1) the press read the rules before publishing and 2) they were actually worried about Bilbao’s well-being. The truth is, all they want is what’s best for Real Madrid, and that is for Barcelona to be forced to play on the Sunday so that they are the ones who have two days rest before their match with Milan.
All that tells me is that the Real Madrid press are running scared of Barcelona. They need Bilbao to get that extra rest and put in a better performance to take points away from the Blaugrana. Not only that, but they need Barcelona to be fatigued during their match with AC Milan, as it increases the likelihood that they will be eliminated. My guess is that deep down, they know that Barcelona would be favourites in the Champions League final, and they know that this title race is far from over. That’s my viewpoint anyway.
Continuing on this theme, Barcelona offered to postpone the match by an hour, allowing Bilbao exactly 48 hours of rest and recovery time, but that was rejected, and the match cannot possibly be played on the Sunday anyway. This is because there is a rule in UEFA competition which states that all stadiums are required to be "handed over" to UEFA over two days before a UEFA competition match for preparations. So, even if Barcelona were willing to wait until Sunday to play against Bilbao, it would not have been allowed by UEFA.
Anyway, to the match ahead, and while La Liga is still "open", the majority of the talk will be around the return leg with AC Milan. Starting line-ups will be analysed with AC Milan in mind, as will player performances and even the end result. However, with Real Madrid kicking off and indeed finishing before Barcelona kick-off, it would be catastrophic for the players to think ahead to Milan. If Real win, then Barcelona also need to win to keep the title race alive, and if Madrid drop points, Barcelona must win to take full advantage. Put simply, Barcelona must win tomorrow.
Victor Valdes will start in goal, purely because I have never seen a goalkeeper rested during the course of a season, at least when the league title is still up for grabs. His clean sheet against AC Milan pretty much went unnoticed, but is a vast improvement on the four goals he conceded to the same opposition in the group stage. While Milan improved to keep out Barcelona, Barcelona also improved to keep out Milan. Why is it that Milan got all the plaudits for doing something Barcelona also managed in the very same game?
Defensively though, there must be pressure on Pep to bring the changes, rotating the backline ready for the vital match with Milan. I propose a back-four as per usual, with Martin Montoya replacing Dani Alves, the usual centre-back pairing of Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique (with Marc Bartra on the bench if possible) and Marc Muniesa at left-back in place of Puyol. Bilbao are threatening on the wings, but the right-hand side, usually occupied by Susaeta, is infinitely less dangerous compared to Iker Muniain. Muniesa’s experience at centre-half should be enough to keep Susaeta in check; while Montoya’s youthful energy is a good match for Muniain’s work-rate.
In midfield, I initially thought that Seydou Keita would start this match in defensive midfield, but his inclusion in the XI at the San Siro throws a spanner into the works. Is he ready to start and complete two matches in three days? Could we see a rare start for Jonathan Dos Santos? There are a few possibilities, but I think Guardiola only has one option, and that is to stick with Sergio Busquets. JDS is a fine player, but surely too small to dominate the midfield against the Basques. Keita is ineffective in defensive midfield, and arguably too old to play two physical matches in three days. Busquets is the only one that truly fits the bill. That said; I wouldn’t mind if he was rested. Maybe Mascherano will move into defensive midfield and Puyol will start at centre-back? Just a thought.
Then we get to the creative side of midfield, and it makes perfect sense why Cesc Fabregas was left on the bench against Milan. Guardiola needs a world-class midfielder to enable Barcelona to dominate possession, and provided he rotates the front-line, he also needs a goalscorer. I think Cesc will start, and not to replace Xavi, not to fill in for Andres Iniesta, but to be Cesc Fabregas. Given license to roam, a free role in the midfield if you like. Thiago can fill in the "Xavi role", but it will be down to Cesc to produce the goods.
Furthermore, a midfield pairing of Cesc and Thiago is also the best-equipped to deal with the physical game Bielsa will no doubt implement; they are the two youngest, and presumably the two with the best stamina as well. I would be very surprised if the two didn’t start tomorrow.
Offensively, Lionel Messi is a given as Barcelona look to cut the gap to Real Madrid, after all, he always starts, and I expect he will be partnered by Pedro and Isaac Cuenca. Pedro looked bright in his short spell on the field against Milan, and with Bielsa’s high-line, his well-timed runs could prove vital tomorrow evening. Cuenca on the other hand missed out on a spot on the bench against Milan, and his ability to deliver the final ball was sorely missed. Up against Aurtenetxe and Iraola, the pace and trickery of the two should cause a lot of problems, and open up the space for Lionel Messi to cause havoc. Overall, it will be a tough match, but I am quietly confident.
Predicted Line-up: Valdes; Montoya, Pique, Mascherano, Muniesa; Busquets, Cesc, Thiago; Pedro, Cuenca, Messi
Match Prediction: Barcelona to show their class on a non-waterlogged pitch against an opposition that will tire after the hour mark, or whenever the first goal goes in, whichever comes sooner. 2-0 Barca is my prediction.