San Mames, Bilbao
1st December, 2013; 2100 hrs, local time
Barcelona’s unbeaten run came to an end this midweek and perhaps the club and manager can breathe a sigh of relief. This loss had to come someday, and sooner better than later. A loss in the group stages of Champions League, after qualifying is perhaps a lesser blow than losing in the knock-out stages and after the demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich, last season, fans will appreciate this even more. Moreover, this loss can also serve as the wakeup call. Time for Martino to wake up and smell the coffee.
Athletic Bilbao are a formidable side, currently on fifth position, just two points adrift off a resurgent Villarreal. A win against Barcelona will be a huge boost for Ernesto Valverde’s side.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Not too long back, Athletic Bilbao decimated a strong Manchester United at the Old Trafford. While they may not be that force now, but certainly one to reckon. And after a lacklustre outing against Ajax, Valverde knows that this is the best time to beat Barcelona. Bilbao have won four of their last six matches and drawn one. Their only loss in recent times have come against a very strong Atletico Madrid – a team which even Barcelona failed to beat in the Super Cup.
Two things which go in favour of Bilbao are that they are playing at home and have some in-form defenders in Enric Saborit, Carlos Gurpegi and Aymeric Laporte. While the young Saborit is a doubtful, it is expected that he will make a full recovery to feature in the match. Laporte and Gurpegi are sure starters. Andoni Iraola and Mikel Balenziaga are expected on either side.
Managers around Europe prefer a balanced 4-2-3-1 formation and Valverde is no exception. The double pivot in midfield should comprise Rico and Iturraspe. The latter is having a decent season and will be a vital cog in Bilbao’s lineup.
Upfront, Muniain and Susaeta have enough potential to torment the fragile Barcelona defense. Their pace and guile might just be a little too much for the sloth Barcelona defense. Ibai Gomez will control the game in the final third, and in the absence of Aritz Aduriz, who is out with injury and also suspension Guillermo is expected to spearhead the Bilbao offense.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz (GK); Iraola, Laporte, Gurpegi, Balenziaga; Rico, Iturraspe; Muniain, Gomez, Susaeta; Guillermo.
Sometimes Tata Martino’s rotations are extremely appalling. When Barcelona has been plagued with a lack of proper defenders in recent seasons, he still isn’t keen on handing Bartra an extended run. After the defeat at the hands of Ajax, Martino might just give Bartra a start, especially with Pique being sloppy. Dani Alves isn’t available and neither is Jordi Alba. Puyol will fill in on one side, with Martin Montoya on the other.
Xavi too is less likely to play and in his absence Fabregas should be deployed in that role. However, Martino might just play Song alongside Busquets and Iniesta, to push Fabregas as the offensive trio. With each passing season, Fabregas is getting better, but that is not the role he is expected to excel at.
Neymar is a certainly and apart from the match against Ajax, the Brazilian wonderkid has hardly had a bad outing. He will be expected to shoulder the responsibility to lead the offense, especially in the absence of Lionel Messi, who is currently recuperating in Argentina. Alexis Sanchez is having an exceptional season at Barcelona and finally looks to be realising the potential that made Barcelona go tooth and nail for him. The Chilean has been nothing but sensational for Barcelona this season and Martino’s faith on him seems to have paid off. The offensive trio of Neymar, Fabregas and Alexis will be a handful for the Bilbao defense.
They also have an added threat in Pedro, who can come out late into the match and cause a lot of damage with his pace and dribbling. Unfortunately, Cristian Tello, the lanky Barcelona winger has had it tough in the last few months and things don’t look any easier for him. He is down the pecking order and with the recent rumours that are linking Barcelona to yet another offensive option, Tello’s Barcelona days are perhaps nearing an end.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Pinto (GK); Puyol, Bartra, Mascherano, Montoya; Song, Iniesta, Busquets; Neymar, Fabregas, Alexis.
- Barcelona are undefeated in their last 20 matches against Athletic Bilbao in all competitions.
- Barcelona have scored at least 2 goals in their last 6 matches against Athletic Bilbao in all competitions.
- Athletic Bilbao are undefeated in their last 7 home matches in La Liga.
Players To Watch Out For
Neymar (FC Barcelona)
The Brazilian has had a smooth transition and the stage is set for him to show that Barcelona are not as dependent on Lionel Messi as they are often projected to be. Neymar has had a relatively quiet game midweek and will be eager to prove himself once again at the highest level.
Athletic Bilbao 1-3 FC Barcelona
Despite this being a home game for Bilbao, they will find it a tad too difficult to contain the Barcelona offense. They may score but in the end the Catalans will outscore them.
Blast From The Past