FC Barcelona will be looking to overturn a 1-2 deficit tomorrow and book their place in the quarter finals of the 2016-17 Copa del Rey when they welcome Basque Country giants, Athletic Bilbao to the Camp Nou. The Blaugrana slumped to defeat in a controversial, ill-tempered match a week ago in which the referee issued two red cards and arguably missed a couple of clear-cut penalty decisions, but leaving the controversy behind for a moment, there can be no denying that much like the referees, Barcelona must also improve their consistency and focus over the course of the 90 minutes.
At San Mames last Thursday, all it took was four minutes of sloppy defending for Athletic Bilbao to race into a 2-0 goal lead, a margin that proved to be insurmountable despite the Blaugrana’s best efforts. While it certainly would have been helpful to have some of the questionable decisions go our way, we could do ourselves a lot of favours if we cut some of these amateurish mistakes out of our collective game.
Given the improvement in the general quality of teams in La Liga over the past few seasons, these mistakes are proving more and more costly. Affording teams like Athletic Bilbao with the kind of opportunities that we presented them with last week simply isn’t good enough anymore, because they possess the skill and the star-power needed to give us cause for regret.
That being said, the past is firmly behind us, and barring some scientific breakthrough being discovered and licensed only for usage by FC Barcelona staff and players, there is nothing we can do to change that. Instead, the focus must be on the future – and in that respect, Barcelona aren’t really in all that bad a position at all.
Admittedly, we could be faring better in La Liga, but sustaining a challenge for a treble is hard work; in the Copa del Rey we are just six games away from the trophy, and in the UEFA Champions League the magic number is seven. The good thing about two-legged knockout competitions is that you don’t even need to win all your matches to lift the trophy; and if you break it down like that, I see no reason why the Blaugrana’s chances of a successful season have diminished irreparably in the past couple of months.
For all those Culés with New Year’s Resolutions, you might be aware that the best way to achieve a larger, more difficult goal is to break it down into smaller, achievable goals. Well, for FC Barcelona, the first step is defeating Athletic tomorrow and progressing to the next stage. Avoiding some of the complexities that the away goals rule brings, all that essentially means is a win tomorrow evening.
In other words, let’s not abandon hope just yet.
From a team news perspective, there’s very little to report. If you believe the experts close to the club, you will be aware that Ivan Rakitic’s omission from the squad this past weekend was related to a number of niggling injuries that the Croatian midfielder has been carrying, and is not an indication that he is being managed out of the club. As such, it may be worthwhile keeping an eye out for the squad list for tomorrow’s match, as Rakitic could well be rested again if Enrique deems it to be necessary.
Aside from the unconfirmed injury reports surrounding Rakitic, there’s no new news to report. Jeremy Mathieu is back, but is unlikely to break into the rotation for a match like this, while the midfield roulette is likely to continue with Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez, Rafinha Alcantara and perhaps Rakitic fighting it out for the right to play alongside Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Elsewhere, a lack of form is unlikely to threaten the starting positions of both Luis Suarez and Neymar; Enrique seems intent to play them until they work through their lack of productivity, and I don’t think that’s a bad idea. In the case of Neymar, dropping him may be more likely to impact his confidence, which would likely have a detrimental impact on his performances when he inevitably returns to the team; and at the moment, he is still working hard and contributing in other ways, even if his efforts are not reflected on the scoresheet.
The obvious news to report is that both Raul Garcia and Ander Iturraspe will be suspended for this return leg after their red cards at San Mames. Markel Susaeta and Javier Eraso are likely replacements for Garcia, while Benat should replace Iturraspe in the heart of midfield. Otherwise, we should expect a similar line-up and a similar approach from Ernesto Valerde’s side; as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke…
Athletic Bilbao 2-1 FC Barcelona – 5th January 2017 – Copa del Rey
Aritz Aduriz and Inaki Williams appeared to give Athletic Bilbao one foot in the quarter finals, before a second-half goal from Lionel Messi handed the Blaugrana a vital away goal.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Denis, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Athletic Bilbao (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; Boveda, Laporte, Etxeita, Balenziaga; Benat, San Jose; Williams, Eraso, Muniain; Aduriz
Keep the faith – 3-1 Barcelona.