Familiarity breeds contempt, or so the old saying goes and perhaps this will be true tomorrow as FC Barcelona prepare to face off against Athletic Bilbao for the fourth time this season and the tenth time in the past year and a half. There is not a single side that Luis Enrique has faced more often in his managerial career than the Basque Country’s most successful side, and he will be hoping to extend his good record with yet another win tomorrow.
Of course, following their slip-up last weekend in Andalusia against Real Betis, the Blaugrana dropped two points further adrift of league leaders, Real Madrid in the La Liga title race. With Los Blancos yet to play their game in hand, the gap could be extended to as many as seven points – and as we are now into the second half of the campaign, it’s imperative that Barça don’t fall any further behind in the coming weeks.
The schedule has been tough, and will continue to get tougher with the return of the UEFA Champions League – but Luis Enrique will believe that his squad still has what it takes to challenge across all three fronts right to the very end. Cutting the deficit will be difficult, but it’s far from impossible. In theory, this is one of the remaining fixtures that could cause Barcelona problems; Athletic Bilbao are acutely familiar with our style and their philosophy often stretches our team to its limits.
However, Athletic Bilbao have travelled poorly thus far this season and this forms a major reason for why they trail their great rivals, Real Sociedad, in the standings. While Eusebio’s side have a respectable 50:50 record on the road, Athletic Bilbao have managed just two wins from nine and they have lost over half of their matches away from San Mames. In total, they have scored just seven goals away from home and that doesn’t bode well for their visit to Catalunya, where Barcelona boast the joint-best defensive home record in the division.
This, therefore, should prove to be a winnable match for the Blaugrana. Heck, it might even be a chance to make a statement to the rest of La Liga. With Real Madrid set to travel to Balaidos on Sunday evening, this matchday could signal the start of a momentum shift in the title race; first, Barcelona must deliver the goods at the Camp Nou and then, who knows what might happen…
The headline news in Catalunya today came from Luis Enrique’s pre-match press conference, in which he declared that Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lucas Digne could all return to the squad for tomorrow’s match with Athletic Bilbao. The Catalan midfield duo have been sidelined for a couple of weeks with their respective injuries, while Digne picked up a knock in last week’s draw with Real Betis.
It would be a welcome boost for the Blaugrana to welcome all three back from injury, although Enrique may wish to play it safe with the Copa del Rey semi-final second-leg against Atletico Madrid and a UEFA Champions League trip to Paris set to follow in the next two weeks. Aside from the injury updates, Enrique didn’t disclose a lot of new information – after squaring off against Athletic so many times in the past couple of seasons, it’s not surprising that we have run out of fresh things to say.
From a selection standpoint, even with the trio of Iniesta, Busquets and Digne possibly set to return, I would suggest that there isn’t an awful lot of need for Luis Enrique to rotate heavily. The partnership of Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti has proven itself against the Athletic attack this season, and Javier Mascherano has performed admirably in the pivote role. In fact, the Argentine reclaimed possession for the opening goal in midweek against Atletico Madrid, and I think his combative nature would be a welcome addition to the midfield for tomorrow’s match.
Neymar’s suspension for the second-leg of that semi-final suggests that he will not be rested; which in turn could free up Arda Turan to start in midfield where his creativity and work-rate could prove to be the difference against this disciplined Athletic midfield. It would also enable Lucho to keep up his midfield rotation, as he seeks to keep every member of that unit both fresh, and content with their minutes.
Otherwise, there is little else that’s likely to be up for debate with the selection tomorrow; this is an important and difficult match, expect Enrique’s selection to reflect that.
By now, we know exactly what to expect of Athletic Bilbao. Their transfer policy restricts the kind of roster churn that we usually expect from these European-calibre squads and as such, we know who to expect and what to expect from each member of their starting line-up.
With no injuries or suspensions, Ernesto Valverde is free to select his strongest possible line-up and that means a set of unique challenges for the Blaugrana to contend with. From the veteran partnership of Aritz Aduriz and Raul Garcia, the youthful flair and speed of Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain, Athletic boast the talent to challenge the Blaugrana but can they bring it all together and escape the Camp Nou with at least a share of the spoils?
Athletic Bilbao: WDLDDW
FC Barcelona 3-1 Athletic Bilbao – 11th January 2017 – Copa del Rey
The Blaugrana overturned a first-leg deficit to book their place in the quarter-finals with a fine home victory over Atlethic Bilbao, as the fabled MSN triumvirate all got on the scoresheet to send Ernesto Valverde’s men crashing out of the competition.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Mascherano, Rakitic, Arda; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; de Marcos, Laporte, Etxeita, Balenziaga; San Jose, Benat; Williams, Garcia, Susaeta; Aduriz
I’m backing myself big here; a statement win, 4-1 to the Blaugrana.