With the first of three Clasicos in the bag and the dust of this global media spectacle slowly settling (for now), the focus can now be placed back to what really matters and has defined FC Barcelona for this past decade. Namely, it’s consistency and sheer dominance in La Liga, which has allowed them to win seven of the last ten league titles. For the moment, the Catalan giants are comfortably on their way to make that a ruling eight of eleven. A stat more often than not overlooked and even dismissed by many of their very own fans, who enviously look over to their bitter rivals from the nation’s capital as they endure Real Madrid picking up four of the last five Champions League trophies.
Despite the clear hierarchy being consigned to each competition, it’s perhaps worthy to note the importance placed on national leagues by managers who value more the week to week consistency of their teams over the unpredictable lottery-like matches played in the European knockout tournaments. Coaches like Pep Guardiola uphold conquering the league at a much higher standard as opposed to winning the UEFA Champions League.
There are undoubtedly those opportunistic fans that assure the Manchester City manager only says that due to his inability to win the glorious European contest since having done so after assembling the greatest football team ever to grace this planet. However, let’s not forget that Real Madrid’s very own Zinedine Zidane uttered the exact same thoughts as Pep while he was in the midst of his successful UCL run.
The consistency of Barça in La Liga should not be unheeded or belittled. Even less so, after Barça dropped two valuable points against a resurgent Valencia and quite frankly looked exhausted in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. They dodged a bullet when Betis managed to beat their closest league title contender in Atletico Madrid. And while the two Madrid based teams will duke out a mouthwatering derby this weekend, Barça’s trip to San Mamés must also not be snubbed. Because while the presence of Leo Messi in San Mamés remains an unknown two days before their duel against Athletic Club it’s crucial to highlight just how drastically the Basques have improved since Gaizka Garitano has taken over.
7 - Gaizka Garitano completed his first seven league games without losing as Athletic's manager, the third best starting for Athletic's manager after Frederick Pentland (18 in 1930) & Ferdinand Daucik (eight in 1954) in the competition ever. Burst pic.twitter.com/OfnK66xHQq— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 4, 2019
With the new manager in charge the red and white squad have only lost once in the league. This happened last match day at the hands of their fierce rivals Real Sociedad in the ageless Basque derby. An astounding turn around considering that under Eduardo Berizzo the historic La Liga team were cementing their place in the relegation zone. Yet, despite their amended form has allowed them to climb their way up to 12th the reality is that only three points separate them from 18th spot. Meaning that the Bilbao bunch will be hugely aware of the importance of taking points from this game.
A match played in one of football’s cathedrals where fans and players alike always give a 100% and create a real pressure cooker of an atmosphere inside the stadium. Garitano’s team is the Athletic of old. They’ll take no prisoners and there’s nobody better than Ernesto Valverde who will know this better than most given this history with the club.
The Catalans meanwhile will arrive tired, and conscious that this is going to be a tough, long month after which they’ll be in the final stretch of all competitions. Health, rotations, minutes will be on their minds but as well should the fact that these are the types of games where precious points can be dropped. A bullet was dodged once. But with a Real Madrid team restored in confidence and an Atleti still in reaching distance of first place, the Blaugrana will need to be cautious not to take this match too lightly and risk loosing their tight grip on an eighth league trophy in the last eleven seasons.