Camp Nou, Barcelona
Saturday, 1 December, 2012; 20:00 hrs CET
The Levante-hurdle crossed. With relative ease. And then David Villa crossed the coveted 300-goal mark midweek against Alaves, a team which gave Liverpool a run for their money a few years back in the UEFA Cup Final.
In midweek, Borja Viguera gave Alaves a shocking lead against Barcelona but Vilanova’s side recovered and after the equalizer by Adriano, David Villa scored a brace to reach his personal milestone and also grabbed a win for the hosts. With this, Villa marks his return to full 90 minutes of football. The match also saw some scintillating football from Alcantara, who is back after a long injury lay-off. With this, Vilanova’s headache will only increase but fans can be sure that this is something he won’t be complaining about (although, unlike a few, Vilanova hardly complains).
Athletic Bilbao is certainly not the team that they were in 2011-12. In midweek, however, they had a comfortable win against Hapoel Kiryat Shmona in Haifa, Israel. Goals from Gaizka Toquero and Llorente gave the Basque side the dignity of finishing ahead of the last spot in Group I in the Europa League. Aymeric Laporte became the second foreign player to start for Bilbao after the former Bayern Munich star, Bixente Lizarazu.
Team News and Tactical Brief
The Catalan club will play at home, and will enjoy the home support. With two players (Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta) out of the top three contenders of FIFA Ballon d’Or, the fans will be thrilled, albeit a section might feel that Xavi missed out once again (as a certain Madrid faction will think of Iker Casillas). With the return of Puyol, Pique and Alcanatara, Vilanova will have to put on this thinking cap to send out his central pairing. Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Messi and a host of other first team players were rested in the game against Alaves, so the Bilbao fixture can expect them back.
The personnel in defence could end up being the usual pairing of Puyol and Pique with Alba on the left. Dani Alves’ injury will give youngster Martin Montoya some more minutes on the pitch. However, given Adriano’s impressive show and return from injury, Vilanova might just want to give the veteran a nod, but a starting berth for Montoya, despite his gaffe which led to Alaves’ first goal, is imperative to instil some confidence in the youngster. The presence of Puyol and Pique behind him will surely give Martin the confidence to foray into the opposition half with aplomb.
Midfield is a healthy dilemma for Vilanova. Thiago’s return adds another dimension here– the audacity to move through the opposition defense with his jinking runs. Alcantara’s passing too is as good as they get in the Barca adacemy. His assist to Adriano in a tight space was exemplary and for Villa’s second goal, the aerial ball to Tello was delightful. Thiago also means that Xavi can get to rest his aging legs more. All said and done, Barca still doesn’t have an answer to Xavi and saving him is something Vilanova will have in mind.
Alex Song is finally fitting into this Barcelona side and he might not be as good a passer as Busquets usually is, but his physical presence, tackles and interceptions against Alaves were an indication that he is on the right track and will get better. Cesc has been allowed the freedom to play a more direct game and Thiago will benefit from this aspect of Fabregas’ game and learn more. For a tough opposition such as Bilbao, Vilanova is expected to start his best eleven, and the best midfield combination that he has at his disposal at this juncture is undoubtedly the Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta combo.
Offense isn’t a problem when Leo Messi is fit. With 82 goals in this calendar year, the Argentine magician is sure to start. David Villa, who played the entire 90 against Alaves, should start against Bilbao and going by the impact he’s had, Vilanova will be tempted to play him for the full match. Villa also brings in the element of a deadly set-piece delivery. Pedro might just get the nod ahead of Tello, who was otherwise great in the midweek clash. Selflessness is a hallmark of this Barcelona side and Tello, at such a young age, demonstrated the importance of the La Masia education by assisting Villa, when he himself could have put the ball into the net. Oh yes, Victor Valdes will get back to his normal position and Pinto to his – the bench!
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Valdes; Montoya, Pique, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro.
A team to be revered. However, this Bilbao isn’t the one that ruled the roost over Manchester United at Old Trafford last season. This Bilbao is far more docile and error-prone. With the departure of some of their major stars now on the horizon (Llorente, Muniain, et al), the end of an era looks imminent. Apparently Bielsa has already confirmed the playing eleven against Barcelona. Jonas Ramalho is supposed to replace the injured Andoni Iraola at the right side of defense – a test he will cherish for years to come.
Against Barcelona, a double pivot comprising Marcos and Iturraspe will be employed in central midfield. These two have played the most number of games for Bilbao this season and quite rightly are their midfield anchors. Ahead of these two young Spaniards, the offensive trio of Ander Herrera, Markel Susaeta and Iker Muniain will operate. At an average age of 22, these three players are perhaps one of the most talented offensive partners in La Liga and Europe. Muniain, with his breathtaking speed can rip open defences in an instant and the aging Barca defense is certainly what Bielsa will be targeting. 2012 has been going really well for the talented Muniain and he’s only gotten better. Crossing was already good and this season it got better and his close control is perhaps better than what Lionel Messi had at his age. However, he still needs to work on his finishing and finding a way past Valdes, which on current form seems difficult. Then again, the Barca custodian is notorious for gifting goals and Muniain along with his teammates might just want to be the beneficiaries while Valdes dawns the cloak of the benefactor.
Susaeta and Herrera are vital cogs and have it in them to unlock many defences. Aritz Aduriz, the former Valencia striker re-joined Bilbao this summer and has found the back of the net 8 times this season in the league and has certainly been one of their better players. His understanding with his teammates and knowledge of La Liga might just help him on a couple of occasions.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; Ramalho, Ekiza, Amorebieta, Aurtenetxe; Marcos, Iturraspe; Susaeta, Ander, Muniain; Aduriz
1. Barcelona have won 9 of their last 10 home matches against Athletic Bilbao in all competitions.
2. The Catalans are averaging 3.3 goals per game and with their defence tightening up since the return of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, Bilbao could be in for a hard time
3. Athletic Bilbao have conceded at least 2 goals in 15 of their last 17 away matches in La Liga.
Player To Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
How close will he go to Muller’s enviable record? Fans around the globe will be pondering over this. Lionel Messi on the other hand has made it clear that he doesn’t exactly play for personal records and Vilanova too has put the team’s cause ahead of individual accolades by not playing him in midweek. A break will do the diminutive Argentine a world of good. Bilbao might just not like the idea.
FC Barcelona 5-1 Athletic Bilbao
Expect a goal-fest. The Bilbao defense will be put to test against the clinical Barca frontline. However when dealing with tricky customers in Muniain, the hosts might just concede a goal or two.
Blast From The Past