FC Barcelona (4th, 21 pts) vs Athletic Bilbao (6th, 17pts)*
*Standings at the time of writing on Saturday
Competition/Round: 2023-24 La Liga, Matchday 10
Barcelona Outs & Doubts: Robert Lewandowski, Frenkie de Jong, Jules Kounde, Pedri, Raphinha, Sergi Roberto (out)
Athletic Outs & Doubts: Yeray Álvarez, Mikel Vesga (out)
Date/Time: Sunday, October 22, 2023, 9pm CET (Barcelona), 8pm BST (UK & Nigeria), 3pm ET, 12pm PT (USA), 12.30am IST (India, Monday)
Venue: Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys, Montjuïc, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Referee: Juan Martínez Munuera
VAR: Valentín Pizarro Gómez
How to watch on TV: ESPN Deportes (USA), SuperSport (Nigeria), Sports18 (India), ITV 4, Viaplay Sports 1 (UK), TSN 2 (Canada), Not Available (Spain), others
Following the second international break of the season and a full week of training in beautiful Catalonia, Barcelona return to action this weekend and welcome a longtime La Liga rival as Athletic Bilbao make the visit to the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium on Sunday Night Fútbol.
This is the first of three consecutive home matches over the next seven days that will in many ways define Barça’s season, especially their ability to make a serious challenge for the league title. The game on everyone’s mind is next Saturday’s El Clásico against Real Madrid but there’s also a crucial Champions League clash against Shakhtar Donetsk that could pretty much guarantee a place in the Round of 16 in midweek, and before those two massive games there’s this weekend’s test that isn’t any easier.
Los Leones come into this one in excellent form, making a strong start to the season that should keep them in the European picture for the remainder of the campaign. Ernesto Valverde had an inconsistent first season in his return to Bilbao but the former Barça boss is once again in his element this term, with a well-organized and brutally efficient team that can counter-attack you to death thanks to the electric pace of the Williams brothers and the rise of midfielder Oihan Sancet to stardom this year.
Athletic have no real weaknesses and welcomed back a few key injured players during the international break, and this team is playing well and full of confidence in their plan and their ability to get a result in the Catalan capital. They know Barça could be looking ahead to the Clásico, and they also know the Blaugrana are very, very injured.
The Catalans are missing six first teamers for this one, four of them undisputed starters and key pieces in Xavi Hernández’s system. The remaining available players didn’t get much rest during the international window and a couple are on the verge of injury and should be managed very carefully, which makes it a big challenge for Xavi to even select a starting XI on Sunday without taking at least some risks.
Expectations must be lowered during this period where Barça are playing gigantic games against very good teams without their best players, and if the Blaugrana can escape this massive week without a defeat and find a way to steal all three points against Madrid then the next seven days can absolutely be considered a success regardless of how well they do or don’t play.
The beautiful football of September just isn’t possible right now, but the good news is all the injured players should be back relatively soon. The job is to survive until they return, and try to pick up as many points as possible in the interim. Beating Athletic is already a tough task under normal circumstances, so three points in whatever form they come on Sunday should be celebrated.
The mark of Xavi’s Barça in his two years in charge has undoubtedly been resilience. This Blaugrana side knows how to win ugly and dig deep when they’re asked to fight, and the mental strength they’ve shown so many times in the past will be even more necessary now. Athletic are the healthier team and have the type of style and players to really hurt Barça, but the Catalans are at home and if they win will find themselves just one point behind Madrid with a chance to reclaim top spot in the table when they meet next week. This truly is a massive game and a win is a must to boost the confidence for the week ahead, but Valverde’s troops won’t go down without a fight of their own.
This will be tough, and tense, and it will demand the best from an injured and tired Barça team. Get ready for a battle.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Cancelo, Christensen, Iñigo, Alonso; Fermín, Romeu, Gavi; Yamal, Ferran, Félix
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Simón; De Marcos, Vivian, Paredes, Yuri; García, Herrera; Berenguer, Sancet, N. Williams; I. Williams
This week will test Barça’s mental and physical resilience as much as any all season, and if there’s one thing this team’s proven under Xavi is no matter how well or poorly they play they are very mentally strong in the toughest moments. I’m betting on that fighting spirit to guide them to a hard-fought and valuable win in this one: 1-0 to the good guys.