FC Barcelona will be hoping to kick-start their La Liga title defense with a win tomorrow when they travel to the Basque Country for the second time this season to take on Athletic Bilbao at San Mames. Of course, the Blaugrana will not have happy memories of their previous trip; it was their first match on Spanish soil this campaign and hot off the heels of being crowned UEFA Super Cup winners, Barça were roundly humiliated and played off the park by their Basque counterparts.
A wonder goal from Mikel San Jose and a hat-trick from Aritz Adutriz secured an emphatic 4-0 victory for Ernesto Valverde’s silverware-starved side; a win that ultimately proved to be enough to end their three decade long trophy drought. Barcelona fought valiantly in the second-leg, but they couldn’t overturn the deficit. Heck, they couldn’t even avenge the loss as they stumbled over the line to register a 1-1 draw.
The ramifications of that night continue to come in thick and fast; Gerard Pique begins his four-match ban tomorrow for his foul-mouthed tirade against the assistant referee and if the first-leg is anything to go by, his absence could cost the Blaugrana dear.
On the other hand, Barcelona almost always start the season well; the last time they failed to win the opening match of the La Liga season was in 2008 under Pep Guardiola – that’s six wins on the bounce since then. Can they extend that streak to seven tomorrow? I can’t wait to find out.
Gerard Pique is suspended. Jeremy Mathieu is injured. Neymar is still working his way back to match fitness. If we really want to get all "defeatist" about this one, Xavi is gone, so is Carles Puyol and apparently we don’t have Ronaldinho anymore either. I understand what people are doing; Barcelona are missing some key players but you know what, that shouldn’t be an excuse and it shouldn’t be a factor in tomorrow’s match.
If we let it affect us, well, that’s a failure on our part.
This squad, give or take a few players, is the same squad that cruised to the La Liga title and eviscerated all-comers to claim a fifth UEFA Champions League crown. Travelling to the Basque Country is never easy, but it isn’t an impossible challenge either.
Above all else, we still have the talent to overwhelm Athletic – it’s merely a question of whether the belief, whether the sharpness is there to properly execute the gameplan.
In goal, I expect to see Claudio Bravo start – and for all the rumours of a change this season, I expect the situation to remain the same as 2014/15. Bravo will start in La Liga, while Marc-Andre ter Stegen takes care of us in the cup competitions – it’s fair, and it worked pretty well last time out. Having said that, I remain a huge Bravo fan – and I will feel a lot more confident of our chances tomorrow with the Chilean between the posts.
And why is that? Not only do I think that Bravo is a better goalkeeper at present, but I also believe that his experience is a difference-maker; his leadership doesn’t just help our defense – it makes our defense. So, even with Gerard Pique suspended, we are still capable of keeping a clean sheet and that’s tanks in no small part to Bravo.
Dani Alves will start at right-back, ideally in better form than his last visit to San Mames while Gerard Pique’s suspension puts Luis Enrique in a bit of quandary. Does he put his faith in Marc Bartra, or Thomas Vermaelen? The options aren’t great, at least based on previous performance against the Basques, but that’s all we’ve got. My money is on Marc Bartra, purely because Javier Mascherano occupies the left-sided berth that Vermaelen would prefer.
Thankfully, Jordi Alba has recovered in time for tomorrow’s match – and it’ll be a shock if he isn’t immediately thrusted back into the starting line-up ahead of Adriano.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets is without competition, while Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta are simply better options than anything else we have. Plus, the departure of Pedro has left a Rafinha-sized hole in the attacking triumvirate – I mean, we know that neither Munir El Haddadi or Sandro are going to start alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in this one, right?
You want to know why I think we can beat Athletic Bilbao tomorrow? Spoiler: it’s because they are eminently beatable. Proof? MK Zilina managed to pick up the victory over Los Leones on Thursday; it may have taken a last-minute winner and an astounding second-half comeback, but they managed it. And what does that say of Ernesto Valverde’s side?
Firstly, it says that they have an important match coming up this Thursday – they’ll need a win to reach the UEFA Europa League group stage and that has to be a priority for the club. Secondly, it arguably shows how much those two performance against Barcelona have taken out of them. They’re feeling the effects just as much as we were after Tbilisi; let’s take advantage.
Expect changes from the side that lost in Slovakia; the most obvious to note will be the returns of Gorka Iraizoz and Aritz Aduriz, while a special mention should also be afforded to Oscar de Marcos and Benat who came off the bench in the losing effort.
Athletic Club: WDWDL
FC Barcelona 1-1 Athletic Bilbao – 17th August 2015 – Spanish Supercopa
Stop me if you know how this one ends…
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Bartra, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Rafinha
Athletic (4-3-3): Iraizoz; de Marcos, Laporte, Gurpegi, Balenziaga; San Jose, Benat, Mikel Rico; Susaeta, Aduriz, Eraso
A close one, but Barça should do enough this time round to pick up the W and get the season off to a strong start.