After a phenomenal start to the La Liga campaign with an emphatic 6-2 victory in the league opener against Real Betis, Barcelona face the first real challenge of the season already in the second game, as the Blaugrana visit the San Mamés to face Athletic Bilbao.
This is a historically difficult match for the Catalan giants, who always encounter a tough, energetic, organized side that becomes better thanks to the support of a fantastic crowd in an amazing stadium. It's one of the most difficult fixtures of the entire season, and in some ways it is good to get it out of the way before the season schedule goes to insane status in 2017.
After dealing with seven absences in the league opener, coach Luis Enrique has more options to work with for this game: André Gomes returns from suspension, Rafinha Alcântara is back from his gold medal Olympic campaign, and two players are expected back from injury: center-back Javier Mascherano is fully recovered from a minor hamstring issue, while Marc-André ter Stegen is likely to be given the medical green light from a knee injury in time to make his season debut as starting goalkeeper. New keeper Jasper Cillessen is still not registered, and will be available only after the international break.
Neymar Jr. is only coming back from Brazil after international duty, while Andrés Iniesta and Jérémy Mathieu remain unavailable while recovering from injury. Along with Cillessen, those four are the only absentees for Sunday's match.
Enrique loves to rotate his squad, but with a full week of training and no midweek games coming up, the Asturian coach has a chance to field a very similar lineup to the one that faces Betis, with only one probable change in goal now that Claudio Bravo is gone:
Roberto - Piqué - Umtiti - Alba
Rakitic - Busquets - Denis
Messi - Suárez - Arda
All ten outfield players were fantastic last week, and there is no reason to change them. Arda Turan continues to impress on the left wing, and with Munir El-Haddadi involved in transfer talks, there is little chance Arda loses his place in the front three. Samuel Umtiti was incredible at Camp Nou, and should partner Gerard Piqué again with Mascherano staying on the bench.
Sergi Roberto is the starting right-back and is a better choice than Aleix Vidal for a game at San Mamés, given that Bilbao love to go forward when playing at home and are dangerous on the wings. Roberto is a better defender than Vidal, and the smartest choice for Sunday's match. Jordi Alba proved he's still a really good left-back, and Lucas Digne is staying on the bench again. Midfield and attack don't need changes. Nothing needs change, really. This team looks amazing.
What is your favorite starting eleven for the Bilbao game, Blaugranes?