Carpe diem baby. FC Barcelona have been handed a golden opportunity – win tomorrow at the Nuevo San Mames and the deficit to league leaders, Real Madrid, is cut to just a single point. Los Blancos have been in imperious form all season, but with their squad ravaged by injury and with a number of key players struggling for form, their demise was all but inevitable. Atletico Madrid (who else?) delivered the coup de grâce, dismantling and dominating their city rivals on Saturday afternoon in a comfortable 4-0 win.
Real Madrid’s lead may remain intact this weekend, but they’ve lost that all-important buffer – that cushion they had to fall back on. Provided FC Barcelona can capitalise, the Blaugrana will end the weekend breathing heavily down their rivals’ neck, knowing that all things being equal until mid-March, a win in the forthcoming Clasico at the Camp Nou will see them leapfrog Carlo Ancelotti’s side and climb back into the top spot.
Here we are, just one month removed from Barcelona’s infamous crisis which was instigated by a dismal night in the Basque Country. Now we’re contemplating the opposite – a visit to Bilbao where we can seize the initiative and ensure that our destiny in the La Liga title race is in our hands once again.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; there is a sizeable obstacle in Barcelona’s path, as a trip to face Athletic Bilbao ranks amongst the toughest fixtures on the La Liga calendar. Alas, while Athletic have been struggling for consistency this season, they represent a significant threat, particularly at home, and have their star striker Aritz Aduriz back in the line-up. Without the Basque forward, Athletic have been abysmal; with him, they’ve at least been a little better.
Such is his importance that Aduriz has scored or assisted half of Athletic’s league goals this campaign – imagine to an extent what Barça are like when they’re deprived of Lionel Messi. That’s the uphill battle that the Basques have been facing.
And therein arguably lies the key to victory – stop Aduriz, and you stop Athletic Bilbao, it really does seem to be as simple as that. Iker Muniain, Ander Iturraspe and Benat; talented as they may be, just about everyone else on the squad has underperformed this season, leaving Bilbao languishing in mid-table and just five points above the relegation zone.
Will FC Barcelona compound their misery by consigning Athletic to another defeat, or will the Basques spoil the moment and deal a severe blow to the Blaugrana’s title hopes?
No injuries to speak of, no suspensions either; the build-up to this game has been nothing but perfect as far as FC Barcelona are concerned. A rare midweek without a match enabled Luis Enrique to hand the majority of the squad a deserved mini-holiday, while the only players who weren’t given time off were Gerard Piqué and Neymar, neither of whom exactly had to exert themselves on a PR trip to Qatar. Factor in Real Madrid’s heavy loss at Atleti, and well, this is shaping up to be one hell of a good week for the club.
All they need to do to wrap it up is bring home the three points from San Mames. It’s a tough ask, but one that the squad is entirely capable of achieving. Our recent away form has been sensational compared to the start of the season; heavy wins in Elche and at the Riazor, plus a spirited victory in the Copa del Rey at the Vicente Calderon – San Mames may be tough, but we’ve experienced tougher and won in the process.
Maybe the pitch will play a part; the weather in Northern Spain hasn’t exactly been much to write home about in recent weeks, culminating in last week’s mind-bogglingly poor playing surface at newly-promoted Eibar, who are of course based in the same region as Athletic Bilbao. Mercifully, the weather forecast is looking good for tomorrow’s match, so hopefully, not even the pitch can stand in our way.
Moving onto the team news, there is no indication that Claudio Bravo will not continue in goal, although in his debut article on Barça Bluagranes, Derek Dorris assessed the current goalkeeping situation at the club, arguing that Marc-André ter Stegen may be a better fit for the side. In particular, it’s his movement of the ball that can make so much difference for the Blaugrana – a trait that may be extra valuable away from home.
I can see where Derek is coming from, and indeed in due course, ter Stegen will make that number one jersey his own, but for now, I see no reason to distrust or discredit Bravo. In fact, his distribution has been just as exquisite as ter Stegen’s in recent matches, at least in my opinion.
In defense, Dani Alves has been carrying something of a niggling injury and while he rejoined training with the rest of the group, there is a possibility that Lucho will take this opportunity to rest our Brazilian full-back in favour of the Catalan, Martin Montoya. In the heart of defense, look for Gerard Piqué to start, possibly alongside Jeremy Mathieu, as Barça would perhaps be wise to match up with Aritz Aduriz’ height, rather than start Javier Mascherano. On the left-flank, Jordi Alba will start hoping for an improvement on a rather disappointing showing against Villarreal.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets should start at pivote ahead of Javier Mascherano, while Ivan Rakitić looks set to slot back into the starting line-up after he was dropped against the Yellow Submarine. In that match, Rafinha Alcântara staked his claim for a regular berth with an impressive, man of the match-worthy performance, but even in spite of that, I can’t see him starting again ahead of Rakitić and Xavi.
Of course, the attack all but selects itself; Lionel Messi and Neymar are in wonderful form, while Luis Suarez is always one goal away from kick-starting his Blaugrana career. Perhaps a match against a Premier League-esque opposition in the form of Athletic Bilbao is what the doctor ordered for our anxious Uruguayan?
Vice-captain at the club, Andoni Iraola is suspended for this match, but as previously mentioned, their star player Aritz Aduriz is fit and in the squad, raring to face off against the Blaugrana. He’ll be hoping for support from some of his under-performing colleagues, including Iker Muniain, but will he get it? Probably not, but will it even matter? Aduriz scored a brace to inspire Bilbao to victory last weekend against Levante; perhaps the calibre of opposition is a shade higher, but he’ll aim to do the same again if it helps secure his team a result.
Athletic Bilbao: LLDDWW
FC Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao – 13th September 2014 – La Liga
Athletic more than held their own against the Blaugrana the last time these two sides met, earlier in the season, but eventually crumbled when substitute Neymar entered the match. His brace, both goals set up by Lionel Messi, secured the three points for Barça.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Montoya, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; de Marcos, Laporte, Gurpegi, Balenziaga; Iturraspe, Mikel Rico; Susaeta, Unai Lopez, Muniain; Aduriz
Expect another end-to-end affair, ending in another Barça victory: 3-1 for me.
- FC Barcelona News: 7 February 2015; Last Training Session Before Athletic Bilbao Match Completed
- Barça’s goalkeeper: Should the issue be closed?
- Marco Reus Will Not Be Joining FC Barcelona
- Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona: Pick the Lineup
- FC Barcelona News: 6 February 2015; Dani Alves Joins Group in Training, Barça Delegation Received by Pope Francis