Barcelona will have to get past an Athletic Bilbao side with revenge on their minds at the Camp Nou, as they look to keep the pressure on league leaders Real Madrid.

Ernesto Valverde’s side will look to avenge their Copa del Rey exit at the hands of Barcelona when both sides meet today in what will be their fourth meeting this season. Barcelona have triumphed in 3 of those fixtures, with their only loss coming in a controversial 2-1 defeat at the San Mames.

Barcelona go into this tie on a good run of form. They have won 7 of their last 8 games in all competitions after that 2-1 loss to Athletic in their first game of the year. They currently sit 2nd on the La Liga table, level with Sevilla, 4 points behind leaders Real Madrid who have a game in hand.

 Los Leones, on the other hand, have been on a very erratic run of form this year. They have won 2, drawn 3 and lost 1 game so far, which came in a 3-1 thrashing at the Nou Camp in the second leg of the Copa del Rey. They currently sit at 7th place, 4 points behind a Champions League spot

Tactics

Barcelona

For this tie, Luis Enrique will welcome back Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lucas Digne, all of whom have returned from injuries. While it is unlikely that all of them will start having only just returned to training today, their availability comes at a good time for the Champions.

Ter Stegen will replace Jasper Cillessen between the posts, after being on the bench for their victory against Atletico 3 days ago. Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Sergi Roberto will all take their place in defence. With Lucas Digne only just back, it is unlikely he will start ahead of Alba.

With Iniesta back, it is yet to be seen whether Enrique will rush his return to the starting XI. Javier Mascherano started in their last game in place of the injured Sergio Busquets. But should Iniesta return, he will take his place in their midfield 3 alongside Rakitic and possibly Gomes.

Predicted Starting XI(4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Alba, Pique, Umtiti, Roberto; Rakitic, Gomes, Iniesta; Neymar, Suarez, Messi

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Athletic Bilbao

Aymeric Laporte and Eneko Boveda are both doubtful for today’s tie and may not start. Striker Sabin Merino is going to miss out as he is still recovering from an operation. Other than this trio, Ernesto Valverde has no fresh injury concerns.

Valverde will go with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with Etxebarria and San Jose both lying deep in midfield and they will be made to focus on breaking up Barcelona’s inter-play and stifling their midfield, namely the likes of Rakitic, Iniesta and Gomes.

With the Lions likely to spend most of the game without possession of the ball, their focus will be on counter attacks and the pace of Williams and Muniain on the wings will be key to their chances today and Raul Garcia and Aritz Aduriz, who’s going through something of a renaissance, will be expected to finish the few chances they are able to create.

Predicted Starting XI(4-2-3-1): Iraizoz; Balenziaga, Boveda, Laporte, De Marcos; San Jose, Etxebarria; Muniain, Garcia, Williams; Aduriz

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Key Statistics

  • Lionel Messi has scored 21 goals and registered 9 assists against Athletic Bilbao in 30 games in all competitions.
  • Barcelona have drawn 6 games in the La Liga this season, the most amongst the top 3.
  • Barcelona have won 12 consecutive La Liga games against Athletic Bilbao.
  • Athletic Bilbao have won only 2 out of the 6 games they have played this year in all competitions.
  • Midfielder Raul Garcia of Athletic Bilbao is the second highest goal-scorer for the club this season with 9, after Aduriz with 14.

Players to Watch

Barcelona: Lionel Messi

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) vies with Athletic Bilbao's defender Mikel San Jose (C) and Athletic Bilbao's defender Mikel Balenciaga (L) during the Spanish Copa del Rey (King's Cup) round of 16 second leg football match FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club de Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on January 11, 2017. / AFP / LLUIS GENE (Photo credit should read LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) vies with Athletic Bilbao’s defender Mikel San Jose (C) and Athletic Bilbao’s defender Mikel Balenziaga (L) during the Spanish Copa del Rey (King’s Cup) round of 16 second leg football match FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club de Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on January 11, 2017. (Picture Courtesy – Getty Images)

The Argentine has been Barcelona’s saviour on numerous occasions this season and has been their most dependable player by a distance and it is not an over exaggeration to claim that the Catalan giants would be fighting for a top four spot at this moment if it weren’t for Messi’s exploits this term.

With 30 goals in a mere 29 games this season, Messi has been in tremendous form and is vital to Barcelona’s title aspirations. In 3 matches against the Basque club this term, he has already netted two goals and will be desperate to add to that impressive tally.

Athletic Bilbao: Aritz Aduriz

Athletic Bilbao's forward Aritz Aduriz celebrates after scoring his team's fourth goal during the Europa League Group F football match Athletic Club de Bilbao vs KRC Genk at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on November 3, 2016. / AFP / ANDER GILLENEA (Photo credit should read ANDER GILLENEA/AFP/Getty Images)

Athletic Bilbao’s forward Aritz Aduriz celebrates after scoring his team’s fourth goal during the Europa League Group F football match Athletic Club de Bilbao vs KRC Genk at the San Mames stadium in Bilbao on November 3, 2016. (Picture Courtesy – Getty Images)

The 35-year-old only just ended his dry spell in the league after getting a goal against Sporting Gijon and in turn led the Lions to their first league win since December. He has scored 2 goals in 5 games in 2015, one of them coming against Barcelona.

If Ernesto Valverde’s men are to stand a chance against Barcelona, he will need his veteran striker to be at his most clinical on the night. Chances will come few and far between for the visitors. With 14 goals in 26 games this season, Bilbao will be depending on Aduriz to continue his good form against the defending Champions and finish whatever chances come their way.

Prediction

Barcelona 2-1 Athletic Bilbao

Despite their erratic form and injury concerns going into this tie, Barcelona should manage to come away with a narrow victory. The defending champions will know very well that failure to get all three points would be disastrous for their title defence.

With the likes of Inaki Williams and Aritz Aduriz leading the line for the visitors, Enrique’s men know they cannot take this tie lightly and that if they aren’t at their best, they will be punished. All the pressure in this tie will be on Barcelona to keep themselves alive in the title race and Los Leones will certainly be motivated to avenge their Copa del Rey exit at the hands of Barcelona and do Real Madrid and Sevilla a favour.

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