La Liga: Athletic Bilbao vs FC Barcelona: Match Preview

Wait a minute...we only won the Copa del Rey in 2012, but this season is meant to be worse? - Denis Doyle

A preview of Barcelona's La Liga fixture with Athletic Bilbao, as the Blaugrana prepare to play at San Mames for the final time

FC Barcelona will be looking to put Tuesday’s devastating 4-0 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich behind them tomorrow when they take on Athletic Bilbao in the Blaugrana’s last-ever match at San Mames. Over the years, we have seen some epic clashes between the two sides – last season’s 2-2 draw on a waterlogged pitch, and of course who can forget Barcelona’s last two Copa del Rey final victories? Will we be treated to another entertaining affair tomorrow? Can Barcelona secure the La Liga title with five matches remaining?

TEAM NEWS

BARCELONA

After their midweek defeat against Bayern Munich, everyone has turned their attention to the summer transfer window, wondering just what – and more importantly who – lies ahead for Barcelona. Neymar? Mats Hummels? Thiago Silva? Success? Of course, it’s impossible to tell; but it is fun to speculate, especially when it takes our mind off of that heavy defeat – a heavy defeat that brought a few issues to light. Included in that list was injuries – Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets were clearly struggling for fitness on Tuesday, and Barça suffered as a result. Busquets has already been ruled out of tomorrow’s match, and should Messi sit out too? Certainly for all the talk of a dependency on the Argentine superstar, Barcelona have been in scintillating form in the past few weeks – scored nine and conceded zero (even with a supposedly terrible defense).

Unfortunately, Valdés couldn’t carry that form over to the UEFA Champions League, conceding four goals against in-form Bayern Munich. There were times were I thought that Valdés could and should have done better – for Müller’s opening goal in particular – but really, what did it matter? The way the match was going, it only would have been delaying the inevitable, or at least, Valdés isn’t to blame for the heavy margin of defeat. Despite a statistically poor season, Valdés is third in the race for the Zamora trophy, and has a realistic shot at second-place.

The rest of the team on the other hand, is a little tougher to predict. Does Tito Vilanova rest some key names ahead of the return-leg of the Champions League? Or does he accept that the tie is over – for the record, I don’t think the tie is over – and focus his attention on La Liga? Perhaps a mixture of the two is in order; starting with Dani Alves at right-back. The Brazilian is still very much first-choice, and seemingly still in good enough shape to start each and every match, even if he does turn 30 in a little over a week’s time. Maybe it’s affecting Martin Montoya’s development – in his natural position anyway – but it does solve a problem that has the potential to strike at any time: Adriano’s fitness. Ironically, Adriano is available and will probably start tomorrow, but is he a player we can count on in the long-run?

Same goes with Eric Abidal – we all love the guy, and want him to stay at the club, but only if there’s a role for him to fill. He completed 90 minutes last weekend and looked excellent, but can he do it again? Can he do it twice in a week? And if so, do we need to spend a small fortune on a centre-half? Hopefully Abidal will also start tomorrow, and perform against a physically-demanding Bilbao attack – and ideally, he will have Marc Bartra for company. Despite the scoreline, Bartra looked "OK" against Bayern Munich – but he needs more experience if he is to grow into his role at the club and ultimately succeed.

Alex Song will start at pivote in Busquets’ absence, which means no start for Jonathan dos Santos, who celebrated his 23rd birthday today. Rather amusingly, Song admitted today that he moved to Barcelona for a chance at winning titles – yet judging by the midweek match against Bayern, no-one quite trusts him enough to allow him a chance to help us secure those titles. Despite Busquets’ struggles with a groin injury, Song didn’t feature on Tuesday, and has played just eight minutes of Barcelona’s UCL knock-out campaign. That works out at roughly £2 million per minute for anyone that’s interested. Ahead of Song in midfield, expect Thiago Alcântara to start his fifth successive La Liga match with Cesc Fàbregas in support.

Moving onto the attack, Lionel Messi could feature, but really, who would advocate starting the Argentine after Tuesday night? He clearly needs recovery – or Bayern were even more effective than we first feared, which would be terrifying. Instead, why not shake things up a little and start with a "real" nine. I’ve heard it’s the latest tactical innovation, and it’s all the rage in countries like Germany for instance – maybe David Villa could fill that role? Pedro and Cristian Tello could provide support from either flank, and if necessary, maybe Villa and Tello could switch places for certain periods? I’d certainly welcome the opportunity to see if Tello’s electrifying pace and clinical finishing could translate to a more traditional role as a striker...

ATHLETIC BILBAO

Fernando Llorente made a rare starting appearance two weeks ago against Real Madrid, and he kept his place in the starting XI for last weekend’s draw against Deportivo La Coruna – scoring Bilbao’s only goal. Aritz Aduriz replaced the Juve-bound striker on 75 minutes only to hobble off in the 88th minute, seemingly injured. However, Aduriz has recovered and could start tomorrow. Ander Iturraspe misses out through suspension, but other than that, Bilbao are at full-strength.

FORM GUIDE

Barcelona: DWDWWL

Athletic: WLWLLD

LAST MEETING

FC Barcelona 5-1 Athletic Bilbao – 1 December 2012 – La Liga

Goals from Lionel Messi (2), Gerard Piqué, Adriano Correia and Cesc Fàbregas secured an emphatic 5-1 home win for the Blaugrana, which was also their sixth successive victory in all competitions.

LIKELY LINE-UPS

Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Abidal, Bartra, Adriano; Song, Thiago, Fàbregas; Pedro, Villa, Tello

Athletic Bilbao (4-3-3): Iraizoz; Iraola, San Jose, Ekiza, Aurtenetxe; Gurpegi, De Marcos, Ander; Susaeta, Muniain, Llorente

MATCH PREDICTION

A trip to San Mames is tough at the best of times, but with Athletic still not technically safe from the drop, it’s surely going to be that little bit tougher for Barça to secure the three points. I’d still back Barça to win, but it’s going to be a tight affair; maybe 2-1 Barça.


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