The madness of January continues for Barcelona as the Catalan giants face yet another brutal test on the road with a spot in the Spanish Cup Final Four on the line when the Blaugrana travel to the Basque Country to face Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals on Wednesday night.
After months of poor results and performances the Blaugrana played one of their best games of the season in their thrilling win away to Real Betis on Sunday, and now they will look to build upon the many positives shown against the Verdiblancos and win another big road game to progress in the Cup and keep their title hopes alive.
But Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic are always a brutal opponent in their home stadium and will be hungry to eliminate the mighty Barça and move on to the semi-finals. Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops for Wednesday’s battle.
Xavi is very much a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” type of coach when it comes to his tactics and team selection. Sometimes it gets him into trouble, but the manager is not shy about sticking with a group of players for many games in a row if they fit well together and win a big game in impressive fashion.
So we shouldn’t expect any big changes to the team that beat Betis, with the only doubt coming at the back: Andreas Christensen missed the trip to Seville with a foot injury but indications are he will be ready for this one, and the Dane would replace young Pau Cubarsí at the heart of the backline alongside Ronald Araujo with Jules Kounde and Alejandro Balde retaining the full-back spots.
João Cancelo could return to the squad after his knee injury but the Portuguese is unlikely to start even if he does come back, so it’ll most likely be the ‘BACK’ quartet together again with Cancelo available as a second half super sub.
Pedri is almost back. The magician was superb in his 70-minute cameo against Betis and looks more and more like his most spectacular self as he gets closer to full fitness. Xavi and the medical team have finally decided to be more careful with the Spaniard’s minutes and are sticking to their plan regardless of the game situation, and they’ll have to remain disciplined even in a Cup tie that could easily go into extra-time.
Ilkay Gündogan and Frenkie de Jong will complete the midfield, and they’ve now fully morphed into a very effective double pivot since the start of 2024. The two seem to complement each other perfectly, and Barça can finally control the midfield again if the three stars are able to play multiple games together.
Beware of The Shark. Ferran Torres scored a superb hat-trick at the weekend to continue the best run of form of his career, and the Spaniard continues to reap the rewards for his hard work and mental fortitude. He’s an undisputed starter right now, and if he continues to contribute in meaningful ways Barça will become more dangerous with multiple threats in attack.
One of those threats is Lamine Yamal, who was the other star of the show against Betis and played a brilliant all-around game. The 16-year-old has undeniable potential and is already making big strides towards becoming a complete player at an imaginably young age, and while he will have natural ups and downs there’s no denying his special talent. He deserves to keep his place in the team and he’ll look to provide Robert Lewandowski with some great service to help the Pole find the back of the net in a big game on the road, which is when strikers of his caliber are needed the most.
Possible XI: Peña; Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Balde; Gündogan, De Jong; Yamal, Pedri, Ferran; Lewandowski (4-2-3-1)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Athletic? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!