Ernesto Valverde is set for a homecoming as Barcelona travel to the Basque county to face Athletic Bilbao on Sunday. Pressure is mounting at the top as Real Madrid took the crown in the El Derbi by registering a comprehensive 3-1 win at the Wanda Metropolitano. While they are five points behind the table toppers, they are strong enough to mount a title challenge which should push Barcelona to perform better and better.
Meanwhile, the struggling Basque team has seen a revival of sorts, jumping from the relegation zone to 13th place and they will try to cause problems.
It’s a must-win for the Blaugranes as it will hand them an eight-point lead over Real Madrid. So here are the three things Barcelona need to do to win against Athletic Bilbao:
Take advantage of their rampant fouling
With 74 yellow and four red cards accumulated in the league, Athletic are the team with the most cards in La Liga. They also commit around 15 fouls per game, second only to Getafe with around 18. This provides Barcelona with a golden opportunity to create chances through set pieces. With Lionel Messi being a doubt, it’s going to be either Philippe Coutinho or Luis Suarez behind the ball and both are adept free-kick strikers. With Sergio Busquets returning after serving a La Liga suspension, the aerial backup has been strengthened and it will prove useful against a side who concede a lot of free-kicks. Maybe the Blaugranes can also stretch the Athletic defence in their penalty box, expect an illegal contact and then appeal for a penalty: everything is possible against a side that commits fouls incessantly.
Athletic are prolific at hitting teams on the break and have scored the most via counter-attacks (four) in the league. They charge from the right side and have pacy players like Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain who can give the opposing defence a run for their money. But with Jordi Alba sidelined for the fixture due to suspension, Sergi Roberto (or maybe Juan Miranda) is expected to fill in a left-back which makes the left side a bit of a problem for the Blaugranes. To make matters worse Arthur is also set to miss the match due to an injury. This points to the fact that this is an area where the Blaugranes might struggle and Athletic may heavily take advantage. It won’t be surprising to see Barcelona line-up in a 4-4-2 in their defensive mode to stop counters. The task is difficult but if Barcelona manage to stop counters especially from the right side, it will be impossible for Athletic to penetrate the Blaugrana defence.
Run with the ball
Athletic are strong in the air but their goal tally of 23 in the league is less than Barcelona’s goal difference (37). The numbers also show Athletic are the team who regularly see their players dribbled past by opponents, with a shocking stat of around 11 per game even with 28 tackles attempted per 90 minutes. While this speaks volumes about how horrific their season has been defensively, it also can be the reason behind their rampant fouling. With skilful players like Dembele, Malcom, Coutinho (and obviously Messi) in the roster, Barcelona can storm past their Basque opponents in a jiffy. If done successfully, nothing can stop Barcelona from grabbing an eight-point lead in the table.