The Catalans are set to renew their age old rivalry with the Basques as FC Barcelona battle Athletic Bilbao in Matchday 20 of La Liga at the Camp Nou on Sunday. 

A Lionel Messi inspired FC Barcelona demolished lowly Granada by four goals to nil last weekend to cement their 2nd position in the La Liga table. Luis Enrique’s men now have the task of overcoming eighth place Athletic Bilbao who lost 2-0 away to Sevilla in their last league outing.

FC Barcelona have won their last 11 league games against Athletic Bilbao in all competitions at the Camp Nou, which is their longest winning streak in history. The Blaugrana have scored in each of their last 17 league matches at the Camp Nou and are odds on favourites to make it 18 in a row against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday.

Some key battles on and off the pitch are likely to influence the final outcome of this fascinating match up between the Catalans and the Basques.

Luis Enrique vs Ernesto Valverde

Interestingly, Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde got the better of FC Barcelona’s Luis Enrique when the two sides battled it out for the Spanish Super Cup over two legs at the beginning of the season. Bilbao smashed four goals past the Catalans without reply in the first leg at San Mames before drawing 1-1 at Camp Nou to deny FC Barcelona their sixth trophy of the calendar year.

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Luis Enrique looking for revenge

FC Barcelona training

Luis Enrique and his FC Barcelona will be smelling blood when the Basques come visit their den on Sunday. The Asturian will be rolling out his standard 4-3-3 formation with the irrepressible trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar leading the line. The South American triumvirate had a stellar 2015 after plundering heaps of goals past hapless opposition defenders. They will be hoping to carry forward their incredible goal scoring form into the New Year.

The key to FC Barcelona’s style of play is the ability of its midfield to retain possession. Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are the mainstays of the Blaugrana midfield and are expected to be largely influential against Bilbao on Sunday. Furthermore, the FC Barcelona has been re-energized since the inception of Turkish midfielder Arda Turan into Luis Enrique’s starting line up. Turan, who has already formed a telepathic understanding with the Barcelona front three, will be instrumental in unlocking Athletic Bilbao’s defence at the Camp Nou.

Ernesto Valverde relying on counter attack

Athletic Bilbao press conference

Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao side outclassed FC Barcelona at San Mames when the two sides met in August in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. However, Valverde is set to employ a counter attacking set up on Sunday night at the Nou Camp.

The pace and trickery of Iker Muniain and deadly finishing ability of Inaki Williams will be central to Bilbao’s counter attacking set up against Luis Enrique’s men. The industry of Susaeta on the right hand side of midfield will be crucial to Bilbao’s hopes of getting anything out of their clash at the Camp Nou.

Bilbao are eyeing a place in the top six come the end of the season and a victory over FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou would go a long away towards achieving that objective.

Key battles

Lionel Messi vs Mikel Balenziaga

RCD Espanyol vs FC Barcelona

Bilbao’s Spanish Left back Mikel Balenziaga has the unenviable task of stopping the 5 time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi when he lines up for the Basques against FC Barcelona on Sunday. Balenziaga has been one of the stand out performers for Athletic Bilbao this season. However, his greatest test lies ahead of him on Sunday when he locks horns with arguably the greatest footballer in the history of football. The winner of this pivotal battle will have major say on the final outcome of this match.

Gerard Pique vs Inaki Williams

FIFA Club World Cup 2015

The defensively resolute Gerard Pique will have his task cut out when he faces Athletic Bilbao’s emerging attacking threat in the form of Inaki Williams. The highly rated Williams has been one of the finds of the season so far and will be a constant thorn in the side of Spanish International Pique when their teams clash on Sunday night. Pique’s ability to cope with the threat of the Ghanaian born Spanish striker will be critical in determining the winner of the match.

Andres Iniesta vs San Jose

FC BARCELONA VS RCD ESPANYOL

San Jose has been a rock for the Basques in central midfield over the years. Athletic Bilbao’s Destroyer-in-Chief, San Jose will be tasked with stifling the creativity of the Barcelona midfield, especially Andres Iniesta when the two sides meet at the Camp Nou. Iniesta’s artistry on the field of play has bamboozled the very best players on the planet over the years – that is the enormity of the challenge that awaits San Jose on Sunday night.

Strengths

FC Barcelona

  • FC Barcelona’s prime strength lies in the attacking part of the team – especially the three magicians up front. The South American triumvirate consisting of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have mercilessly plundered hundreds of goals past opposition defences in the past year. They have firmly cemented their place as one of the best attacking trios in the history of football.
  • Barcelona’s ability to dictate the flow of the match through its relentless mastery of possession football is second to none.

Athletic Bilbao

  • Athletic Bilbao will be banking on the excellent partnership upfront between Inaki Williams and Iker Muniain to hit FC Barcelona on the counter at the Camp Nou.
  • The aerial presence of San Jose, Aymeric Laporte and Carlos Gurpegui will pose a major threat to FC Barcelona on either end of the pitch.

Weaknesses

FC Barcelona

  • FC Barcelona’s weakness in the air has been well documented over the years. Gerard Pique is the only player in the Barcelona team that has good aerial ability and Athletic Bilbao will be looking to exploit that on Sunday night.
  • FC Barcelona’s ability to control possession and play a high line in defence leaves it vulnerable to counter attacks – especially if the opposition has quick runners upfront.

Athletic Bilbao

  • Athletic Bilbao’s central defenders are excellent in the air but lack mobility. FC Barcelona’s dynamic front three will be looking to exploit Bilbao’s potential weakness in the center of defence.
  • Bilbao’s central midfield comprising of San Jose, Benat and Eros is inexperienced and has the possibility of being over run by the skill and artistry of Barcelona’s midfield comprising of Busquets, Iniesta and Turan.

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