After getting the weekend off due to the loss in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final against Real Madrid last week, Barcelona return to action for the Copa del Rey Round of 16 away to Athletic Bilbao at the glorious San Mamés.
This is a one-off, single-elimination tie against one of the toughest and roughest teams in the country that is coming off a loss in the Supercopa Final in Saudi Arabia and will be hungry to avoid elimination at home. Marcelino García Toral’s side has been a brutal opponent lately, but the last time these teams met in the Spanish Cup it was a sensational performance and a four-goal win for Barça in the 2021 Final.
Repeating the result won’t be easy in what is always a very hostile atmosphere in the Basque capital, but Barça will be favorites to advance. Here’s how they could line up on Wednesday in order to get the job done.
Considering the quality of the opponent and the weekend rest, it is hard to imagine Xavi not going with his strongest possible side. There are no Covid issues at the moment, no crucial players are injured and the ones who recently came back from injury have had several days of training under their belts, so the coach will be able to pick what he thinks is the best team to win in Bilbao.
Neto will most likely start in goal in the Cup, and Ronald Araujo will partner Gerard Piqué in the middle of the backline with Jordi Alba starting at left-back. The only real doubt is at right-back, with Sergiño Dest fully fit again and hoping for an opportunity which could come against Athletic if Xavi decides to give Dani Alves a breather.
Ever since the loss in El Clásico there has been a lot of debate online about the seemingly untouchable status of Sergio Busquets. A lot of fans want him on the bench and his recent performances certainly give them a reason to ask for it, but the captain has been Xavi’s first name on the teamsheet and that probably won’t change anytime soon unless Sergio has multiple disaster performances in a row.
With Busquets most likely guaranteed to start in his regular position and Pedri looking fantastic in El Clásico, there’s realistically only one spot left in midfield with three high-level players fighting for it: Gavi, Nico González and Frenkie De Jong. Because we are yet to see the Frenkie-Busquets-Pedri trio under Xavi, there’s a good chance the coach gives it a good look on Wednesday night with the two Barça B young stars ready to help off the bench.
After several months of almost no forwards available, all of a sudden the attack looks stacked with Ousmane Dembélé, Ansu Fati, Memphis Depay and Ferran Torres all available to play. And don’t forget about Ez Abde and Ferran Jutglà, who have been big contributors over the last month and would both be deserving of a chance in this one as well.
Torres started against Madrid in his debut but was clearly not at full fitness and probably needs another game or two to be at his best before he can be a regular starter. Same for Memphis Depay who is just coming back from injury, so the two will probably be on the bench. Dembélé will continue to start under Xavi until he leaves.
Luuk De Jong will serve the second game of a two-match suspension in the Cup picked up with Sevilla last season, so he is out for this one. Ansu Fati wasamazing last week and looks fully fit, and we are probably past the point where the club needs to be overly cautious with the Prince. If he starts, there is one spot left in attack and if Torres isn't quite ready to go then Ez Abde most likely gets the nod.
Possible XI: Neto; Dest, Araujo, Piqué, Alba; F. De Jong, Busquets, Pedri; Dembélé, Fati, Ez Abde (4-3-3)
How do YOU think Barcelona should line up against Athletic Bilbao? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!