FC Barcelona will headline Jornada 20 tomorrow when they host Athletic Club at the Camp Nou in what with be the fourth of six meetings scheduled to take place between the two clubs this season. While the record reads one win, one draw and one loss in the previous three meetings thus far this season, the Basque Country giants have certainly had the better of the Blaugrana in 2015-16.
The 4-0 drubbing they inflicted on us in the first-leg of the Supercopa de España will live on long in the memory of Athletic fans across the globe, as will the images of them lifting the trophy at the Camp Nou after a 1-1 draw in the second leg. While Barça fought back to claim the three points the last time these two sides met in the opening match of the La Liga season, they were far from convincing in that narrow 1-0 win.
As such, it would probably be prudent to suggest that a tough night awaits Luis Enrique’s side tomorrow. As strange as it sounds given how they dominated us in pre-season, Athletic have recovered from what was a very slow start this season to climb into the top half of the table, where they would like to push on and challenge for a European qualification berth. However, their form has taken something of a slip in 2016 with a home draw against Las Palmas, and an away defeat against Sevilla FC.
Also troubling for head coach, Ernesto Valverde, is that he will be without the services of his two brightest offensive players, Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia. The veteran striker Aduriz wreaked havoc in the Supercopa, but with a yellow card last weekend at the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuan, he will have to sit tomorrow’s game out through suspension. More ominously for Valverde, Garcia is now a long-term casualty facing up to two months on the sidelines after he picked up an injury against Sevilla last weekend.
Without those two, Athletic’s offense loses a lot of production which without a doubt hinders their chances of picking up a surprise win in Catalunya; but was that ever the end goal for Valverde? In a dream world, of course, but now he is liberated to settle for the draw – Athletic can sit back, retain shape, frustrate the hosts and leave one up top, Inaki Williams, in a bid to catch us out on the counter.
On the plus side, Enrique has been experimenting this month with a 4-2-3-1 featuring a "double-pivot"; speaking today in his pre-match press conference, Lucho faced questions about his new tactics and was effusive in praise for the system, rightly so. Everything he said about the system helping to provide a greater stability to the team, a more natural balance between offense and defense and how it can help to limit the threat that opponents cause in transition was right – it’s a solid choice, particularly with the personnel now at our disposal.
The introduction of Arda Turan was delayed by a FIFA-imposed registration ban – but his integration into the line-up has been seamless since the turn of the year, making the Turkish midfielder a key component in this 4-2-3-1 where he can feature alongside Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. And speaking of the Argentine, Enrique is right in saying that the 4-2-3-1 involves our five-time Ballon d’Or winner with a greater regularity – and that can never be a bad thing.
Having thrived as a false nine, a winger, and as an inside forward, it’s only logical that with time as his career progresses that Messi would fall into a more orthodox and traditional old-school role as a #10, much like the man he’s always compared to, Diego Maradona. There’s more space to operate in between the lines, and it also has the additional benefit of drawing the defensive line forward in a futile bid to bring pressure – and we all know what typically happens after that with Neymar and Luis Suarez free to run in behind.
So, a disciplined side without their two best offensive talents visits the Camp Nou and a head coach who’s found himself a viable alternative to the usual 4-3-3 – should we expect another sighting of the double-pivot tomorrow?
The only factor I neglected to mention above was how the 4-2-3-1 and the double-pivot really doesn’t suit one of our players – our club captain, Andrés Iniesta. For that reason alone, I am hesitant to think that Enrique will be employing these tactics in the truly "big" matches. Factor in that our 4-3-3 won us the treble last year, and really it might be a little premature to suggest that Enrique is doing anything other than experimenting.
I expect a 4-3-3 tomorrow; the usual kind of thing with Claudio Bravo between the sticks, and with Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, Javier Mascherano and Jordi Alba in defense. Sergio Busquets will start as the lone midfield anchor, with Sergi Roberto and Andrés Iniesta my choices to join him in midfield. The attack selects itself and will be looking to add to their collective total of 39 goals in this La Liga season.
We went through the big news about Aduriz and Raul Garcia, but what about their other absentees? Well, Ibai Gomez remains sidelined – and his injury has allowed Valverde to experiment with a few players from their prodigious academy, the latest of whom is Inigo Lekue, who started last week’s loss to Sevilla on the wing. Iker Muniain is slowly starting to get match time as well, and a player with his talent should always attract some special attention – but the key man without a doubt will be Inaki Williams.
Athletic Club: WWDWLW
Athletic Club 0-1 FC Barcelona – 23rd August 2015 – La Liga
A second-half strike from Luis Suarez was enough to seal the three points for the reigning La Liga champions, in what was the third meeting between the two sides in the matter of a fortnight.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Roberto, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; De Marcos, Laporte, Gurpegi, Balenziaga; San Jose, Benat; Susaeta, Eraso, Lekue; Williams
It’s always a tough match for our squad, and to predict as well – but I’m going for a 3-1 home win.