FC Barcelona entertain Athletic Bilbao tomorrow as they look to extend their record-breaking start to the season with a victory against Marcelo Bielsa’s struggling side. With six wins from their last six league games, Barca are in exceptional form and in theory, they should run riot against Los Leones. While a home victory would (temporarily) move the Blaugrana six points clear at the top of La Liga and place further pressure on second-placed Atletico Madrid – who make the short journey to the Santiago Bernabeu to face city rivals Real in the standout fixture of Jornada 14 – Vilanova will be keen to remind his players that Bilbao simply cannot be taken lightly.
Tito Vilanova has no new injury concerns to contend with heading into tomorrow’s match, while there has been some good news on the injury front as both Alexis Sánchez and Marc Bartra trained today – albeit away from the group. Also involved in individual training was Eric Abidal, although Tito was quick to clarify the Frenchman’s "unique" situation in today’s press conference. According to the Blaugrana coach, there is no set date for Abidal’s return but even so, this is a step in the right direction. Adriano also returned to training today after missing Thursday’s session through illness.
Victor Valdés will return in goal after sitting out Wednesday’s comfortable victory over Alaves, and the Catalan keeper was in inspired form last weekend where he made a spectacular double-save to deny Levante a late consolation. Ideally, Valdés will be looking to make a similar impact tomorrow and claim his third successive clean sheet (a feat he last managed way back in March).
Defensively, Dani Alves continues to miss out through injury so Martin Montoya should start at right-back and the Spaniard has been a revelation thus far this season, registering the same number of assists as Xavi – at least in La Liga action. Gerard Piqué was rested in midweek, but is expected to start tomorrow, possibly alongside Carles Puyol who is on course to make his 380th La Liga appearance. However, Puyi may have to settle for a place on the bench as Javier Mascherano did perform brilliantly the last time these two sides met in league action. At left-back there isn’t really a debate to be had: Jordi Alba will start because he is easily the best left-back in La Liga. In fact, one might even go as far to say that Alba has established himself as one of, if not the best left-back in World Football since his move back to the Camp Nou, but that’s a topic for another day.
Sergio Busquets will return in midfield and just like Mascherano, Busi was superb back in March when Barca ran out 2-0 winners against Bielsa’s Bilbao. Despite the frantic tempo, Busquets adapted excellently and – alongside the sensational Thiago Alcântara – proceeded to dominate the midfield. While it’s unlikely that Thiago will be able to give a repeat performance tomorrow, it’s nice to know that Barcelona have a player of his calibre ready in reserve. Instead, I expect Xavi Hernández to start alongside Cesc Fàbregas, which would mean Vilanova starting the same midfield that dispatched Spartak Moscow at the Luzhniki and brushed aside the challenge of Levante at the Ciutat de Valencia.
Similarly, I expect Tito to start the same strikeforce as well, with Lionel Messi supported by Pedro Rodriguez and Andrés Iniesta. While it would be nice to see David Villa start after his brace against Alaves, there’s simply no room for El Guaje at this current point in time. After all, Tito would either have to bench Andrés Iniesta or move Messi to the wing and bench Pedro – assuming that we don’t want to ever see Villa on the right-hand side again. On the other hand, given Iniesta’s form, and Messi’s God-like consistency, it’s probably for the best. Now if only we could get Pedro firing on all cylinders again...
As long as Marcelo Bielsa is in charge, matches against Athletic Bilbao will never be easy. Granted, the Basque side are languishing in 14th place after a shambolic start to the season, but they are still a talented outfit and their unrelenting work-rate could cause problems for the Blaugrana. Javi Martinez is gone, but unsettled striker Fernando Llorente is back in the fold and managed to score in Athletic’s mid-week Europa League clash with Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona. Llorente’s future with the club is still in some doubt, and he may well be dropped to the bench given Aritz Aduriz’ return from suspension, but his talent cannot be questioned. Aside from Llorente and/or Aduriz, not much has changed at San Mames and therefore expect Bilbao to operate in the same way they did last season, with Iker Muniain, Oscar de Marcos et al pressing Barcelona high up the field – which should create lots of space for the Blaugrana to thrive.
FC Barcelona 3-0 Athletic Bilbao – 25th May 2012 – Copa del Rey Final
Barcelona delivered a suitable end to Pep Guardiola’s reign with a trophy-winning performance in the Catalan’s final match in charge. A ruthless first-half display was enough to seal victory, with goals courtesy of Pedro (2) – see he can score! – and Lionel Messi.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Montoya, Piqué, Puyol, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Athletic (4-3-3): Iraizoz; Iraola, Amorebieta, Gurpegi, Aurtenetxe; De Marcos, Iturraspe, Ander; Muniain, Aduriz, Susaeta
Bilbao have one of the worst defenses in La Liga. Barcelona have the best attacking record. Expect goals, and plenty of them – I’m going for another emphatic Barca win, a hugely optimistic 5-1 from me.