Revenge for the Supercopa is on the Sunday menu, but more importantly, an opportunity for Barcelona to keep an impressive domestic winning streak going.
Even if the realist in you has a hard time believing that Barca can catch Atletico at the top the table, the recent success has been significant in keeping them solidly in the top four.
Can they continue the momentum as the calendar turns?
Here are some keys to the game.
1. Have an answer for Athletic’s physicality
Athletic always play a physical game. Last time around, emotions boiled over and Lionel Messi paid the price for retaliating.
The Basque men aren’t out there looking for a fight. It’s part of the game plan. And it’s nothing new.
Right-back Ander Capa is this ethos personified. No one gets past that guy. And if you go in for a challenge, just ask Antoine Griezmann, it may not end well.
How will Barca respond to that?
You’re not going to beat them at their own game. Barcelona players at the moment don’t have the temperament. Long gone are the days of Javier Mascherano, the lion of the midfield.
It starts with defensive fundamentals, and they need to be much better than they were in the Supercopa final.
Especially when defending set-pieces.
Athletic has players who are big and tough, but you still need to stand tall, mark them tightly, and fight to be the first person to the ball.
Jordi Alba in particular had a horrendous defensive showing on that day. Yes, he ducked under the ball. It wasn’t a good look, and it cost the team the game.
The good news is that Alba, like the rest of the team, are usually the superior talent with the ball at their feet. So take care of the defensive basics, and neutralize your opponents' physicality by leveraging tactics on the attacking end.
2. Move the ball quickly
Tired of being kicked, pushed, and knocked to the ground?
Here’s a reminder that the ball moves faster than the person.
So move the ball quickly.
This is good advice no matter who Barca is playing. It’s what made tiki-taka unstoppable.
Barcelona still loves possession. Against Athletic they had 68%, and 66% against Elche.
These days the old habit does more to get them into trouble than provide an advantage.
Against Elche, it helped establish dominance. But it took too long for the heavy possession to result in danger in front of goal. No goals means it’s not working.
Possession can’t look like you’re taking a walk in the park. It needs to be paired with urgency, intensity, and the intention of building into the final third as soon as is possible.
And when you get there, don’t turn around!
Best way to do that is to pass the ball more quickly. Get the defense chasing. Back to the one and two-touch passing.
Without Sergio Busquets it’s more of a challenge, but to be honest oftentimes he’s the one slowing down the rhythm on the pivot. Riqui Puig would be an intriguing replacement because of his direct style of play.
3. Start the game on the front foot
Looking back at the Supercopa final, the thing you may remember is that Barca squandered a lead in the final minutes.
The ending, however, is misleading.
Barca did manage to open the scoring with a goal by Griezmann in the 40th minute. They were fortunate.
From the beginning, Athletic was the motivated team. That’s why they were able to score equalizing goals twice, and eventually the game winner off a screamer from Inaki Williams in the opening minutes of extra time.
The question for Barca is how badly they want to win. It has not yet been answered.
Under Marcelino, Athletic look energized. They fight.
Will we see the same fighting spirit from the Barca players? In order to continue the good run of form they will need it, and it will be required on a consistent basis.
Ronald Koeman will need to do a better job demanding it. Leaders on the team like Messi could also do a better job setting the example.
Against Athletic, we will know within the first five minutes who wants to win more, and it will likely make all the difference.