Following their dramatic 5-4 extra-time victory over Sevilla FC in the UEFA Super Cup on Tuesday in Tbilisi, FC Barcelona return to action on home soil tomorrow when they will take on Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of this year’s Supercopa de España. As winners of both La Liga and the Copa del Rey last season, the Blaugrana technically are the only side to have truly qualified, but as per usual when this situation arises, the losing finalists of the Copa del Rey also "qualify" ahead of the La Liga runners-up.
And that’s probably for the best, because at this early stage of the season, who really wants to see a couple of Clasicos?
Of course, that’s not to say that Athletic Bilbao do not pose as much of a threat as Real Madrid would have; perhaps quite the opposite. The Basque Country club haven’t had to travel the world for their pre-season preparations and when you couple that with Barcelona’s exhausting extra-time win in the UEFA Super Cup, well, one could be forgiven for declaring Athletic the favourites for tomorrow’s first-leg.
Typically, a trip to San Mames is a physically draining, difficult experience and Athletic’s superior fitness is sure to be on display at some stage during tomorrow’s match. The only question is whether Barcelona’s individual brilliance can carry them through, just as it did on Tuesday in the blistering heat of Tbilisi.
Curiously enough, these two sides previously clashed in the 2009 Supercopa de España, again following the Blaugrana’s treble in the previous season. In that instance, Barça fought back from a goal deficit to claim a narrow victory at San Mames in the opening leg before sealing the trophy with an emphatic 3-0 win in the return leg at the Camp Nou. Fast forward six years, virtually to the day; will history repeat itself?
I can’t wait to find out.
While they were both substituted before the final whistle on Tuesday, I understand that neither Andres Iniesta nor Javier Mascherano have picked up knocks that could rule them out of tomorrow’s match. On the contrary, perhaps Mascherano and Iniesta are the players most likely to start as a result of their early withdrawal in Georgia. Whatever the case, Barcelona don’t have any new injury concerns to contend with – meaning that fatigue will be our "only" barrier.
At face value, it’s difficult to determine just how much Tuesday’s efforts will influence Luis Enrique’s selection tomorrow. However, looking at it logically, there isn’t really much room for him to manoeuvre.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen will likely continue between the sticks given the Supercopa’s status as a cup competition, although in all honesty, as a goalkeeper, he will be the least affected by Tuesday. His defense on the other hand, well that’s an entirely different story. As mentioned above, Javier Mascherano is probably a safe bet as a starter, and Gerard Pique should also be included in that bracket – but it is possible that Thomas Vermaelen may start, potentially liberating Javier Mascherano to advance into a holding midfield role.
Likewise, Vermaelen could start at full-back ahead of Jeremy Mathieu; Lucho has a couple of options, but whether he opts for them is another matter. My money is on Mathieu and Dani Alves continuing at full-back, but for Mascherano to push forward into midfield with Vermaelen starting at centre-half.
As such, Sergio Busquets is then free to either drop to the bench and rest his legs, or he could possibly perform a "Xavi" role alongside Andres Iniesta in midfield. Usually, I would suggest that Rafinha Alcantara could rotate into the midfield, but given Pedro’s unique situation and Neymar’s injury, the Brazilian is arguably needed more at the front of the pitch in attack. Don’t count out another start for Ivan Rakitic though, particularly given his importance to the squad.
Moving forward to the attack, there’s likely to be little debate; Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Rafinha/Pedro will lead the line and that’s that. Sandro and Munir El Haddadi provide fresh, exciting options off the bench, but starting away at San Mames is a huge ask, and one that I don’t think Enrique will burden either with just yet.
Unlike Sevilla, Athletic enter this match with what is essentially a full complement of players. Sure, there’s no Iker Muniain, Ander Iturraspe or Inaki Williams, but Athletic still boast a strong squad full of talent. Aritz Aduriz has been the most consistent Spanish born striker over the past couple of seasons and as always, Athletic’s fortunes largely hinge on the calibre of his performance on the night.
However, special attention should also be afforded to Aymeric Laporte, who put pen to paper on a contract extension a couple of weeks ago. The French defender is a world-class prospect with admirers across the world; on his day, he could single-handedly stifle the Blaugrana attacking triumvirate. Whether he will tomorrow, that’s something only time will tell.
Athletic Club 1-3 FC Barcelona – 30th May 2015 – Copa del Rey
The Blaugrana cruised to victory in a victory inspired by our South American contingent as goals from Lionel Messi (2) and Neymar were complemented by assists from Dani Alves (2) and Luis Suarez.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Vermaelen, Mathieu; Mascherano, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Rafinha
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; de Marcos, Laporte, Etxeita, Balenziaga; Gurpegi, San Jose; Susaeta, Benat, Eraso; Aduriz
We’ll do well to escape this one without defeat; my head says 2-1 Athletic, but my heart says 2-2 draw.