Sunday, February 8, 20:00 CET
San Mamés Stadium
Matchday 22 of La Liga will see FC Barcelona travel to the Basque country for a traditionally very difficult match against Athletic Bilbao. Even if Athletic are having quite a poor season by their standards, a trip to the San Mamés is always quite a scary proposition, especially at a time where Barcelona simply can’t afford to drop points if they are to remain in contention for the La Liga title. The match assumes even greater importance considering that Barcelona’s two title rivals, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, will face each other this weekend – thus giving the blaugrana the chance to gain ground on at least one of them if not both in case of a win, while a draw or a loss could well be a morale-deflating missed opportunity.
Team News and Tactics
Athletic are having quite a poor season for their standards; while relegation isn’t really a prospect, European qualification doesn’t seem like one at the moment either. Even more bizarrely, they haven’t won a single home league match since late November – a truly surprising fact considering San Mamés’s fame as one of the toughest places to visit in La Liga. Case in point, Barcelona have failed to win there in each of the past 3 seasons and have only won 22 times in 83 visits overall. This season, however, there are not many reasons to fear the new San Mamés stadium, what with Athletic sporting a rather pedestrian 3 wins, 3 draws and 4 home losses so far in La Liga.
With that said, the team has looked better in recent times and Valverde will be looking to cause an upset that could potentially serve as a catalyst for the rest of the season, especially with a crucial Copa del Rey semifinal tie with Espanyol coming in midweek. The Copa is a competition that Athletic have won no less than 23 times (second only to Barcelona’s 26) and one that obviously means a lot to the club and their fans, but first there’s this Barcelona match to deal with. Valverde is likely to field a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Iraizoz in goal, a back 4 of Balenziaga, Laporte, Etxeita and Marcos, shielded by Rico and José; Muniain, Lopez and Susaeta will play behind the lone striker Aduriz. Iturraspse will be a notable absentee as the injury sustained last week against Levante will rule him out for at least a month.
Ernesto Valverde has said that his team will look to pressure Barcelona high up the pitch and attack as it’s impossible to defend against the kind of mercurial talent Barcelona possess up front for 90 minutes. That’s the kind of well-executed strategy that has given Athletic great results against the Catalans in recent years.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; Balenziaga, Laporte, Etxeita, Marcos; Rico, José; Munian, Lopez, Susaeta; Aduriz
This match might just be one of the most important of the entire season for Barcelona. Currently sitting second in La Liga 4 points behind Real Madrid, this weekend might renew the club’s title hopes or see them take a decisive hit. More than 24 hours before kick-off at San Mamés, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid will face off at the Caldéron and considering the recent results in the Madrid derby this season (in the Supercup, La Liga and Copa), there’s a great chance Real Madrid will draw or lose to their city rivals. If that happens, Barcelona will go into the match knowing that a win will put the La Liga title on their own hands, in the sense that they will only depend on themselves to win the title.
While recent results at San Mamés aren’t encouraging, recent form most certainly is. Barcelona have been on a tear during the past month, including 3 wins over Atlético Madrid (one in La Liga, two in the Copa) with the likes of Messi and Neymar in seemingly unstoppable form. If they can keep that form up in the coming months, dreams of a La Liga and Champions League title could well become reality. This match is obviously pivotal in such quest, a win could be a great launchpad, while a loss could potentially see Barcelona fall out of contention in La Liga.
Bravo will start in goal, with a back four of Alba, Piqué, Mascherano and Alves; Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic in midfield and the holy trinity of Suarez, Neymar and Messi up front. If these three keep up the form they have shown lately, a Barcelona win this weekend becomes a very probable outcome.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Bravo; Alba, Piqué, Mascherano, Alves; Busquets, Iniesta, Rakitic; Suarez, Neymar and Messi
Key Match Facts
- Athletic haven’t won at home since matchday 12 of La Liga.
- Barcelona have scored 13 goals in their last three La Liga matches.
- The corresponding fixture at Camp Nou ended 2-0 for Barcelona
Player to Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
As inevitable as it sounds, it’s impossible not to mention Messi here. After a couple of less than impressive years for his impossibly high standards, Messi has started 2015 with a bang, scoring 9 goals and 5 assists in his first 7 matches, along with some more remarkable pieces of skill. If Barcelona are to win the biggest trophies, they will need Messi to step it even further up in the most crucial matches, like this one at San Mamés.
Athletic Bilbao 1-3 FC Barcelona
Considering each team’s form, Barcelona should be able to get their first win at San Mamés since 2010, with the likes of Messi, Neymar and Suarez all getting on the scoresheet.