La Liga: Athletic Bilbao vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

Dean Mouhtaropoulos

A preview of Barcelona's La Liga clash with Athletic Bilbao at the "Nuevo" San Mames

FC Barcelona travel to the Basque Country tomorrow to take on Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao in what will be the Blaugrana’s first trip to the "new" San Mames. In six fixtures at their new home, Athletic have registered four wins and two draws; that’s the magnitude of the task awaiting Gerardo Martino’s injury-hit squad tomorrow. Barça either have to make history, or risk losing some, if not all of their three point advantage at the top of La Liga.

Following Atletico Madrid’s 2-0 win away to Elche, Barcelona top the standings on goal difference alone; in spite of their terrific record under Martino, Barça’s position is far from secure – and that’s quite a concern given the injuries suffered by the likes of Lionel Messi and Victor Valdés. We witnessed against AFC Ajax in midweek just how unpredictable football can be, but unlike the UEFA Champions League group stage, one bad result could dramatically change the picture of this increasingly competitive title race.

TEAM NEWS

BARCELONA

Barcelona’s injury problems took another turn for the worst this week, as club captain Carles Puyol sustained a knock, ruling him out of contention for tomorrow’s match. In his place, Brazilian full-back Adriano Correia has recovered from his latest setback to make Martino’s 18-man squad, which continues to include B team players, Adama Traore and Patric. An unused substitute in tonight’s 2-1 win over Cordoba, Patric will travel direct from Andalusia to presumably make the bench for tomorrow’s match. However, with Dani Alves also ruled out of this historic clash, Patric could make a surprise appearance.

With Victor Valdés sidelined, Jose Manuel Pinto will continue in goal, hoping to bounce back from Tuesday’s disappointing night against Ajax, where the veteran keeper picked two goals out of the back of his net – mostly as a result of the failings of the defense. In fact, Pinto actually played rather well (all things considered) making a few saves over the course of the 90 minutes. If he can sustain that level of performance, if not improve, the results should hopefully follow.

However, this ultimately depends on the form of the defense. Which Barcelona backline will show up? The one that has conceded just eight goals in fourteen La Liga fixtures, or the underwhelming bunch that showed up against Ajax? With Martin Montoya and Adriano on either side of defense, Barcelona should address one of their major issues, but they simply have to hope that Gerard Piqué is in better form, or that the likely return of Marc Bartra makes an impact.

Or perhaps we should all accept and acknowledge the importance of Sergio Busquets to this system? For the most part, all Culés are aware of Busquets’ brilliance, but maybe it’s time we all held him in a similar regard to Lionel Messi – after all, Busquets is far and away the best in the world in his position and typically, bad things happen to Barcelona when he is either absent, struggling with injury or simply off-form. He rests against Ajax; Barcelona struggle to cope with the high pressure applied by the Dutch midfield and eventually lose. Busquets will start tomorrow – let’s see if this is reflected in the scoreline.

Cesc Fàbregas’ services will likely be required in the Barcelona attack – although I personally would hand him a start in the midfield – meaning that Xavi and Andrés Iniesta are likely to retain their place in the centre of the park, with Neymar and Alexis Sánchez tipped to start alongside Cesc in the Barça frontline.

ATHLETIC BILBAO

Tomorrow’s hosts are struggling somewhat in fifth place – not for results, but for consistency from their players, particularly in offense where no single player has grabbed in excess of three league goals. When preparing to face the league leaders, that must be a significant concern for Valverde, who required a late red card to turn the tides in his side’s favour on Monday against lowly Malaga.

FORM GUIDE

Barcelona: WWWWWL

Athletic Bilbao: WWDLWW

LAST MEETING

Athletic Bilbao 2-2 FC Barcelona – 27th April 2013 – La Liga

An injury-time equaliser from Ander Herrera snatched a share of the points for the hosts in their last fixture against Barcelona at the original San Mames, after Alexis Sánchez’ 69th minute goal appeared to have gifted Barça a win.

LIKELY LINE-UPS

Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Alexis, Fàbregas, Neymar

Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; Iraola, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga; Ander, Benat; De Marcos, Susaeta, Muniain; Aduriz

MATCH PREDICTION

Make no mistake, this match will not be a walk in the park and only gets tougher with our lengthy injury list – we could easily drop points if we aren’t at the very top of our game. However, after a disappointing result in midweek, the squad will be raring to get out and prove their mettle once again – I’m going for a close-fought 3-2 win.

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