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Keys to the Game: Barcelona vs Athletic in the Supercopa final

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An opportunity to show that reports of Barcelona’s demise were greatly exaggerated

FBL-ESP-SUPER CUP-REAL SOCIEDAD-BARCELONA Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images

The Spanish Supercopa matters this year more than ever for Barcelona.

Think back to last year. The Copa del Rey, a tournament Barca usually dominates, was a big disappointment after getting knocked out by Athletic Bilbao 1-0 in the quarter-finals.

La Liga was theirs to win, but after a few bad results in the return to play, Real Madrid pulled ahead in the table and never looked back.

Barcelona are only in the tournament because of the expanded four-team format. This is an opportunity the team needs to take advantage of.

Symbolically, a trophy could be the perfect medicine for the club’s damaged psyche. They may have failed in spectacular fashion in 2020, but the optics of raising silverware in the first month of 2021 could set a winning tone for the new year.

Barcelona are in great form, but they are also digging out of a hole in La Liga. Going on a winning streak is the only way to stay competitive. The Supercopa final is fuel for that fire.

Standing in their way is another tough and proud Basque team in Athletic Bilbao. Barca will need a complete performance from players and the manager alike in order to get the job done.

Athletic riding high after convincing semi-final win

Real Madrid v Athletic de Bilbao - Spanish Super Cup Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Both semi-final matches were thrilling.

Athletic looked energized and motivated to take down Real Madrid, thus preventing the world from seeing a Clasico final.

Barcelona will be familiar with this Athletic team since they last met a few weeks ago. On that day, Barca played one of their best games in a 3-2 comeback victory.

It was also Athletic’s first game with new manager Marcelino.

Barca shouldn’t forget how fired up Athletic was to start the game with the always dangerous Iñaki Williams scoring on the counter-attack in the opening minutes. Marcelino is an animated manager, and his players are starting to play in his image.

Against Real Madrid, you saw a dangerous and creative attacking team with a variety of weapons. You also saw a team capable of defending a lead as Real Madrid spent the entire second half bombarding the defensive line, ending the game with 21 shots but only one goal.

Williams is still the first player to account for. Barcelona knows what he’s capable of, especially if they choose to play with a high defensive line.

Raul Garcia is the second forward in their 4-4-2 formation, and he showed his quality in the semi-final, scoring two goals in the first half.

For my money, Iker Muniain is the player Barcelona should worry the most about. The diminutive attacking midfielder never stops causing problems and creating opportunities. He put a goal past Barcelona the last time around, and seems cut from the Marcelino cloth.

Rounding out the team you have a midfield tandem of the young Unai Vencedor and the experienced Óscar de Marcos. The defensive line is lead by Iñigo Martínez and Unai Núñez, who play in front of the reliable young goalkeeper Unai Simón.

Barca shouldn’t let Athletic’s poor showing in La Liga fool them. They are in the honeymoon period with their new manager, and in the semi-final they played like a team with something to prove.

Barcelona must match Athletic’s energy

Real Sociedad v FC Barcelona - Spanish Super Cup Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

The Athletic players are physical and will take the game directly to Barcelona.

No doubt there are tired legs after playing 120 minutes, with few options on the bench.

Ronald Koeman will bring a bigger and more diverse roster with him into this game. Hopefully, he’s planning for the possibility of extra time, and as the game develops he manages it accordingly.

As nice as it would be to win the game, the team can’t afford more injuries. No one wants to see unnecessary risks with Dembele and Pedri in particular.

Regardless there’s no other way to play this game than to go on the attack. Dembele continues to be the most aggressive and creative attacking player. Against Real Sociedad he looked like he had zero gas in the tank at the end, so taking advantage of early opportunities may be Barca’s best chance to score the winning goal.

Riqui Puig could be the x-factor in this one. Pedri will likely start the game, but Riqui’s legs are fresh and he is full of confidence after scoring the winning penalty. Koeman may be coming around to giving him the chances he deserves, and if he uses him Sunday, it could make a big difference in the outcome of the game.

In terms of maximizing the fitness of his players, it may make sense to give Miralem Pjanic a start over Sergio Busquets. I wouldn’t count on it though.

Everyone not named Messi needs to step up

Real Sociedad v FC Barcelona - Spanish Super Cup Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

We still don’t know if Messi will play. Messi wants to play, and everyone knows if he does it will give the team the best chance of winning.

But it’s also a big risk in a symbolic game like this.

Expect Martin Braithwaite and Antoine Griezmann to get the start. Both have played hard recently, not only inside of the box, but also with their hustle on defense.

Going forward Frenkie de Jong can’t be the only one scoring goals. Frenkie, Pedri, and Dembele will likely be the playmakers, but the first two options for putting goals away are Braithwaite and Griezmann.

Will they rise to the occasion? Let’s hope they do, and that it continues going forward.

Maybe all Barcelona needs is another superhero performance from Ter Stegen

Real Sociedad v FC Barcelona - Spanish Super Cup Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Let's face it, Barcelona has one of best goalkeepers in the world, and in the end it may be enough.

Marc-André ter Stegen reminded everyone in the semi-final of the heroics he can provide. Many of us forgot about his powers the past six months with all the defensive errors overshadowing his performances.

In the final, Ter Stegen will be the insurance policy he always is, ready to make the save that could prove decisive.

Will this one come down to another penalty shootout? If it does, I don’t like Athletic’s chances.

Hopefully Barcelona’s defenders will continue their strong run. Nothing would be better for the future outlook of the team than having youngsters like Óscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo, and Sergino Dest put in big performances under pressure.

Make no mistake about it, this is an exciting opportunity for Barcelona to rebuild their reputation as a championship club. Let’s hope they take it.