The second international break is behind us and the reigning, defending La Liga champions begin a giant week of football at the Montjuïc Olympic Stadium as Barcelona return to action this Sunday with a crucial league game against Athletic Bilbao.
Barça come into this one three points off the top after a wild 2-2 draw away to Granada two weeks ago, and with a big Champions League clash against Shakhtar Donetsk in midweek and the much-anticipated first El Clásico of the season next weekend the Blaugrana need three points to build up their confidence to begin a three-game stretch that will define their season.
But with a serious injury crisis and an Athletic side that arrives at Camp Nou in great form under former Barça manager Ernesto Valverde, this promises to be a very tough one for the champs. Here’s how we think Xavi Hernández will line up his troops for Sunday’s battle.
Xavi’s biggest challenge is to keep his remaining players as close to fit as possible while also knowing he has no choice but to play all of them in all three games this week. The importance of the matches means he can’t afford to gamble on the inexperience of the available Barça Atlètic youngsters, who can provide depth on the bench but aren’t likely to feature at all in three games that are so crucial.
So the coach has to be very smart about managing the first team players he has at his disposal, making timely rotations to keep the team as fresh as possible while also making sure it is competitive enough to get a good result in all three games.
Starting at the back, resting João Cancelo is impossible despite the Portugal international badly needing a night off after two months of non-stop football for club and country thanks to the injuries to Jules Kounde and Sergi Roberto, and keeping Ronald Araujo fit is a bigger priority given the Uruguayan’s injury history and the importance of his availability until Kounde can return.
Araujo played every minute for Uruguay during the international window and should get a rest here, with Iñigo Martínez getting a chance to start against his former club alongside Andreas Christensen at the heart of the backline. Alejandro Balde has recovered from a minor injury suffered in Spain duty but shouldn’t be risked here, with Marcos Alonso available to start at left-back.
Ilkay Gündogan is a similar case to Araujo, having made a long trip to the United States and playing every minute of football for Julian Nagelsmann’s new-look Germany in their two international friendlies. A rest for the veteran midfielder is the smart choice, and even without the injured Pedri, Frenkie de Jong and Roberto there is enough depth in midfield to allow Gundo to get at least 45 to 60 minutes off on Sunday.
That’s thanks to the rise of Fermín López, who continued the great momentum from his last month and a half of football with a great performance and a beautiful goal for the Spain Under-21 team during the international break. The 20-year-old has already proven he can be relied upon in big moments to provide energy and creativity all over the final third, and he’s a good fit alongside Oriol Romeu and Gavi in a three-man midfield.
Fermín could also play up front as a false left winger if Xavi decides to go with a four-man midfield and start Gündogan, but we think the coach will stick with a classic front three for this one.
The latest reports coming out of Barça’s camp in recent hours seem to indicate that Lamine Yamal suffered nothing more than an injury scare in the Granada game, and his absence from the national team in the break was more of a precaution than anything else. That’s good news, especially because there is literally nobody else available for the right wing position and Yamal is the only option for that position on Sunday.
He could theoretically start on the bench if Xavi decides to be cautious and go with a four-man midfield, but the youngster is expected to be fully fit to play from the get-go in this one. If that’s indeed the case, then Ferran Torres will lead the line and João Félix will retain his place on the left.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Cancelo, Christensen, Iñigo, Alonso; Fermín, Romeu, Gavi; Yamal, Ferran, Félix (4-3-3)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Athletic? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!