FC Barcelona take their title defense on the road tomorrow, as they prepare for one of the toughest matches on the La Liga calendar – an away trip to San Mames to take on Athletic Bilbao. As any who has ventured to the region will know, a visit to the Basque Country is generally quite an incredible and fun experience – the food is great, the wine is excellent and oh, yeah, the football teams are incredibly tough to beat.
The mere mention of the word "Anoeta" is enough to send chills down the spine of any true Culé, and while our record at the San Mames is somewhat better, we know we are always in for a difficult night when this fixture comes around on the calendar. There won’t be any time to enjoy the picturesque surroundings, or sample the local cuisine – instead we will need to dedicate all of our efforts into securing a positive result.
With their opening day decimation of Real Betis, the Blaugrana set down a clear marker for the rest of the division – sending a message that once again, they would be the team to beat in Spain. A repeat of that performance would likely be enough to secure another three points tomorrow, but Luis Enrique is under no illusions that his side await a difficult test tomorrow.
In spite of their faltering start to the campaign, Enrique has commented on the difficulties that travelling to the Basque Country poses, and the strengths of Ernesto Valverde’s side. Will the Blaugrana be in for another nightmare trip, or will this signal the start of a rich vein of form in Northern Spain?
It’s a brave new world. After a summer of speculation, FC Barcelona finally pulled the trigger and allowed Claudio Bravo to move to Manchester City earlier this week, bringing the Chilean’s two year association with the club to a rather abrupt end. Marc-Andre ter Stegen is now expected to serve as the undisputed number one across the two major competitions, although the arrival of Dutch international Jasper Cillessen does somewhat contradict that notion.
The 27 year old had been Ajax’s number one for three seasons and had started well in his fourth – so it seems odd that he would take the opportunity to move to the Camp Nou without some guarantees about his playing time. Whether this means he will play in more than just the Copa del Rey remains to be seen, but for now he will be back-up to ter Stegen even if he is missing tomorrow’s match at San Mames.
Of course, ter Stegen is back in the squad after recovering from his injury and he is joined by Andre Gomes, who returns from suspension, Rafinha Alcantara, who returns from Olympic duty, and Javier Mascherano who has shaken off the knock he picked up against Sevilla.
Speaking of the Argentine, there is a chance that he may not automatically reclaim his place in the starting line-up for tomorrow’s match; Samuel Umtiti was impressive in the emphatic win over Betis, and as a result, there are calls for him to retain his place in the backline. What we do know is that Gerard Pique will start, and so will both Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto, both of whom played starring roles in last weekend’s victory.
The midfield is likely to remain unchanged; Andres Iniesta is not yet back from injury and that provides Denis Suarez another opportunity to shine alongside Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in the Barça midfield. Andre Gomes is likely to be in contention for that third midfield berth given his return to the squad, but I suspect that Denis will edge it based on the contributions he was able to make last weekend.
And with Neymar on an extended vacation, the triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Arda Turan will once again lead the line for the Blaugrana. All I will mention is that if Lionel Messi can continue in a similar vein to last week, then Athletic don’t stand a chance.
Surprisingly, Ernesto Valverde’s side slumped to defeat in their season opener last weekend, dropping all three points against Sporting Gijon at El Molinon. Despite boasting the majority of the possession and registering more shots than their opposition, Athletic went 2-0 down courtesy of a quick-fire second half double from Duje Cop and Victor Rodriguez – and while Borja Viguera grabbed a late consolation, the visitors returned home without anything to show for their efforts.
It’s unlikely that Valverde will make many, if any changes at all to that side – so his focus will be on refining his gameplan, and the players will be determined on simply executing better. After all, they know they are better than what they displayed last weekend.
FC Barcelona 3-1 Athletic Bilbao – 27th January 2016 – Copa del Rey
Inaki Williams put the visitors ahead in the first-half to tie the aggregate score in this Copa del Rey semi-final second-leg, only for the Blaugrana to pull away in the second half courtesy of goals from Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Neymar.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Denis; Messi, Suarez, Arda
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; de Marcos, Boveda, Laporte, Balenziaga; San Jose, Benat; Williams, Raul Garcia, Susaeta; Aduriz
It’s going to be a close one, but I think our quality shines through in the end. 2-1 Barça.