You getting that feeling of déjà vu yet? With FC Barcelona preparing to play Athletic Bilbao for the second time in three days and the fifth time this season, one could be forgiven for complaining of fixture fatigue, especially in light of three 2016 showdowns with RCD Espanyol. I mean it says it all when Barcelona are going to be eight games into 2016, and having only played four teams in total. So much for variation, right?
Clearly, the folks over at the LFP have been watching too many Simpsons re-runs as well; "It's my job to be repetitive. My job. My job. Repetitiveness is my job!"
After an emphatic 6-0 win against Athletic at the weekend, Barcelona would surely settle for a repeat performance, but be under no illusions, tomorrow will be an entirely different ball game. Not only can Athletic welcome back Aritz Aduriz from suspension, but they will also have home advantage at San Mames, not to mention 11 players for the duration of the game, at least in all likelihood anyway.
Ergo, it’s not really wise to draw too many conclusions from the weekend, other than that Barcelona can be quite good against 10 men with home field advantage and if that comes as a surprise to you, well you were probably a lost cause to begin with. Sure, we outplayed what we were up against, but it would be a major disservice to Athletic to suggest that this result was a consequence of anything other than the unique circumstances they found themselves in after Gorka Iraizoz’ early red card.
Lest we forget, the first chance of the game fell to the visitors while they still had their full complement of players on the field…
Fortunately, while tomorrow’s match promises to be a huge test for Luis Enrique and his side, it isn’t the be-all and end-all either. The quarter-finals of this year’s Copa del Rey will be played over two legs, just like every other season, and as such if given the choice, I would take a score draw without hesitation is it were on the table. With an away goal and the second leg at the Camp Nou, I would be confident we could progress overall – and really, that’s all that’s important here.
As much as we want to win every match, it shouldn’t inflate our expectations either. We will be without Luis Suarez. There’s no Jordi Alba. We might be without Lionel Messi too. So, Cules, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture for a change. Agreed?
If you’re a regular reader of our site, then you probably will have seen my preview to Sunday’s game, in which I rambled on about the 4-2-3-1 that Luis Enrique was beginning to integrate into his plans. It offers more stability, particularly in transition, and as a result, Enrique has stated that he is keen to use it when the situation dictates. Now I’m not a UEFA Pro Licensed coach, but I think tomorrow is a clear example of the situation dictating this to us.
Without Luis Suarez, we’ll need to find a new centre-forward, albeit for one night only. There’s a lot suggesting that Neymar should be that man, but against a side as physical as Athletic Bilbao, I’d be keen to avoid that. Sandro would be my choice, although he seems like he’s headed for the exit and that may influence Lucho’s selection. Munir thrived there in the youth ranks, but he’s found the transition to playing that position in the senior squad a little tougher.
So, maybe Lionel Messi will travel and play anyway.
Whatever the case, my selection for the triumvirate of attacking midfielders is clear: Aleix Vidal on the right, Neymar on the left and Arda Turan in an old-fashioned role as #10. The beauty of it is that Turan provides the physicality we will need at San Mames, but he also provides us with flexibility as he can easily interchange with Neymar, who has shown at an international level that he absolutely dominates in a shadow striker role.
Behind them, I would opt for a double-pivot of Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta – it isn’t Iniesta’s best position, but his composure in possession will be vital for limiting the opportunities that Athletic have in transition, particularly if they start with Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain.
In defense, the injury to Jordi Alba will force Enrique’s hand in the sense that he has to rely on "Mr Versatile", Sergi Roberto to fill in. He experimented with it at the weekend, and after the official site ran a story on it this evening, it seems like a dead-cert to happen tomorrow as well. Then, on the opposite flank we will have Dani Alves, with Gerard Pique and Thomas Vermaelen the logical choices in the centre of defense.
Aritz Aduriz is back, and with his return, Athletic regain their best player, top scorer and their identity. With him in the squad, they can bully opposing defences with a more physical style of offense and that’s really what we expect from a match-up with the Basque Country giants. Iraizoz isn’t suspended for the Copa del Rey, but expect Iago Herrerin to continue in goal irrespective.
FC Barcelona 6-0 Athletic Bilbao – 17th January 2016 – La Liga
Barcelona (4-2-3-1): ter Stegen; Alves, Pique, Vermaelen, Roberto; Busquets, Iniesta; Vidal, Messi, Arda; Neymar
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iago; Lekue, Laporte, Etxeita, Balenziaga; San Jose, Benat; de Marcos, Susaeta, Williams; Aduriz
I’m going for a 2-1 Barca win, on the assumption that Messi will travel and start.