The story of Athletic Club this season seems to mirror that of Valencia; a regular contender for European competitions who stumbled into difficult times and found themselves hovering above the relegation zone for much of the season’s early stages. Also like their counterparts, Athletic recently rediscovered their groove and are consistently climbing the La Liga standings, currently sitting in 12th place. While not of the same calibre as Valencia, the Athletic side that Barca will face this weekend differs significantly from the one that failed to win a La Liga match for the months of October and November.
Looking at their recent form, Athletic have performed respectably in their last five matches, with three wins, one draw and one loss in all competitions. This includes back-to-back 2-0 and 0-1 victories over Sevilla in La Liga and Copa del Rey matches respectively. Before their 2-1 loss to Real Sociedad last weekend, Athletic held a seven-match undefeated streak in La Liga, stretching back to 10 December.
Regularly sporting a 4-2-3-1 formation, Athletic did well to limit the number of shots taken by their opponents during their hot streak. Their away match at Alaves was one of the few matches where their opponents’ shots outnumbered their own during this time period, however Athletic were still successful at restricting Alaves’s opportunities to awkward angles and far distances. This ensured that only two of their 11 shots hit the target and that the match would end in a goalless draw.
Even in their game against Celta Vigo, where Celta maintained 67% possession, only three of Celta’s 16 shots were accurate, while Athletic managed to get four out of their eight shots on target. This allowed Athletic to grab a valuable 2-1 away win, despite having fewer scoring opportunities and seeing significantly less of the ball. Ultimately, four of their last eight matches resulted in clean sheets, while Athletic only failed to score on one occasion.
The above information emphasises Athletic Club’s rigidity at the back, and the fact that the Blaugranes will have to change up their attacking approach in order to keep Athletic’s defence on their toes. Varying the speeds of their build-up play and shifting focus between the wings and the centre are a must, and should help prevent Barca from becoming predictable as was the case in the latter stages of the second half of their fixture with Valencia.
Also important for Barca to attend to are the gaps in their defence that reappeared in their last two fixtures. While it seemed as if Barca’s defensive woes were finally dead and gone, they resurfaced against Valencia, and resulted in the concession of two early goals on the Blaugranes’ home turf. In the mid-week Copa del Rey clash with Real Madrid, a sixth minute goal by Lucas Vazquez allowed Real Madrid to pull ahead early on at the Camp Nou, while Barca struggled until the 57th minute to grab an equaliser. Allowing their opponents to score early on only places more pressure on Barca, as they then need to focus on drawing level before even thinking about pulling ahead and winning the game.
Putting Barca’s few issues aside, this should still be a straight forward victory for the Blaugranes should they find themselves in decent form and a good frame of mind come kick off. Athletic are far from La Liga’s best, and while they are typically a side that challenges for a spot in Europe, the majority of their points come from weaker opposition in the bottom half of the table. Their consecutive triumphs over Sevilla were certainly anomalies, and a win over Barca is incredibly unlikely in any circumstance. The outcome of this match firmly rests on the shoulders of Barca, and any failure to win will surely be the result of a failure on Barca’s part to perform to spec. In normal circumstances, this should be a clear three points for the Blaugranes that would help maintain their La Liga lead as we enter into a nerve-racking couple of weeks.