FC Barcelona

v

Athletic Bilbao

Camp Nou, Barcelona

21st February, 2011; 01:30 am, IST

***

Finally, the February fever has infected FC Barcelona. The Catalans have been dropping points quite regularly in February for the past few seasons. Last season, they dropped 3 and as many as 5 the previous year. This season too, draw against Sporting Gijon and a loss away at Emirates, in UEFA Champions League, didn’t help their cause either. In the upcoming match against Athletic Bilbao, the Basque club can take a lot of courage from FC Barcelona’s current predicament.

The last time these two clubs met, at the San Mamés, FC Barcelona won the match. Kieta, Xavi and Busquets scored for the Catalans whereas Gabilondo pulled one back for the hosts in the dying moments of the match. What’s notable is that David Villa earned his first red card in Barca colours in that match. Bilbao too had defender Amorebieta sent-off for a nasty and quite unnecessary tackle on Iniesta.

Team News and Tactical Brief

FC Barcelona

February has never been a propitious month for Barcelona and the 2010-11 season is no exception. Recent draw and loss against Gijon and Arsenal respectively bears testimony to the fact. Many might cite the absence of Carles Puyol as a probable reason; however, for a team, who aspire to win silverwares, these cannot be excuses. After picking up a knock in the ankle against Arsenal, David Villa is back with the team and will, in all probabilities, feature in the starting line up. The striker had an otherwise average game against Arsenal, except of course the opening goal. Apart from Villa, Carles Puyol and Jeffren continue to recuperate from their respective injuries and they did take part in running and jogging exercises in their last training session. Chances of Puyol’s availability are very slim. Nonetheless, Guardiola might field the veteran defender in this intense clash against Bilbao.

With the exceptions of Puyol and Jeffren, Barcelona has all their players available. In a match of paramount importance against Champions League spot contenders, Guardiola is expected to field the usual Barcelona first eleven. Maxwell might be the only new face if captain Puyol doesn’t make it in time for the match. This will prompt Abidal to partner Pique at the heart of the Barcelona defense. Messi will play his usual ‘false 9’ role, which gives Villa and Pedro the opportunity to drift in more often. The width of Camp Nou will be exploited by Alves and Maxwell on either wing. Xavi and Iniesta are expected to orchestrate from the middle of the park. The former will lie deep and the latter will surge to maintain the link. Busquets will provide cover to the Back Two, thus forming a Back Three when the fullbacks move ahead and also perform his usual duties as a snatcher when Barcelona loses possession. Valdes’ performance wasn’t up to the mark against Arsenal. The custodian has to be at his best to stop the Los Leones from scoring from whatever opportunities that come their way.

Probable Starting Line-up: Valdes, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Pedro, Messi, Villa

Football Fans Know Better

Probable starting line-ups


Athletic Bilbao

Champions League aspirants couldn’t have asked for a better time to face the beleaguered Catalans. With 38 points in 23 matches, Joaquín Caparrós’ men will take a huge leap towards the coveted Champions League spot if they snatch all 3 points from the Camp Nou. However, it is needless to say that it won’t be easy, especially after a brusque defeat at the hands of Mallorca. Apart from that, Bilbao has had a decent run. The partnership of Gaizka Toquero and Llorente has been fabulous. However, it is the presence of Spanish midfielder – David Lopez, which makes the difference. With 2 goals and 4 assists this season, the midfielder has been the heartbeat of the Basque side. Javier Martinez shares the responsibilities with Lopez in midfield. At a young age of 22, Martinez has played more than 150 matches for Bilbao and is a key member of the squad.

Fernando Llorente

Iker Muniain, yet another star in the making for Athletic, has the ability to torment an afflicted Barcelona defense. However, all’s not rosy for Joaquín Caparrós. Despite the availability of so many key personnel, the manager might just feel the absence of Mikel San Jose, Igor Gabilondo, Ibai Gomez and Jon Aurtenetxe. Though San Jose and Gabilando have resumed training, they are still doubtful for the match against Barcelona. Veteran defensive midfielder Carlos Gurpegui returns from suspension and is expected to provide shield against Barca onslaught. “If we can frustrate them and stop them from scoring, we can look for our front players and try to hurt them on the break,” said Gurpegui. Ustaritz too has shaken off a minor knock and is expected to start.

Probable Starting Line-up: Iraizoz, Ustaritz, Amorebieta, Iraola, Ekiza, Gurpegui, Muniain, Lopez, Martinez, Llorente, Toquero

Key Facts

  1. In the Liga this season, Barcelona has scored 32 first half goals and 39 second half goals.
  2. Barcelona has the highest shooting accuracy in the Liga this season: 59.3%
  3. Guardiola’s Liga record as coach: 78 Wins 14 Draws & 7 Loses. Goal difference: 274-71

(Key Facts courtesy @barcastuff)

TheHardTackle’s PLAYER TO WATCH OUT FOR

Xavi (FC Barcelona)

The midfield maestro was eclipsed by Wilshere in the match against Arsenal. This match is of huge importance, given the fact that Madrid will be playing 24 hours prior to Barcelona and will try to reduce the gap to 3 points. Xavi has to control the pace of the game against defensively solid Bilbao midfielders. Barcelona’s fate will largely depend on how Xavi pulls the strings from the midfield.

TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION

FC Barcelona 2-1 Athletic Bilbao

Despite a sudden drop in form, Barcelona will start as favorites at the Camp Nou. They are expected to come out of the match with all three points. In the absence of Puyol, the Catalans might succumb to Bilbao blitz. However, if Bilbao goes back with anything other than a defeat, it’ll be a huge boost to their Champions League aspirations.

TheHardTackle’s BLAST FROM THE PAST

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