Barcelona will aim to extend their club-record unbeaten run in the league when they host Athletic Bilbao at Camp Nou on Sunday.

Two sides with contrasting runs of form of form meet each other as Matchday 29 of La Liga continues on Sunday. Barcelona will be looking to continue their record chasing unbeaten run in the league when they welcome Athletic Bilbao to Camp Nou.

The hosts have largely been imperious in the league this season as they chase the record unbeaten run in La Liga, set by Real Sociedad in 1980. Ernesto Valverde’s men are just three behind La Real’s mark, and will be buoyed this weekend, having sealed their place in the Champions League quarter-finals with a midweek win over Chelsea.

Athletic Bilbao, on the other hand, crashed out of Europe in the midweek, losing 2-1 to Marseille at San Mames. Their fortunes in the league haven’t been much better either, with the Basque club currently 12th on the table, although they did win their last game in the league.

The reverse fixture, played back in October at San Mames, saw Bilbao provide a tough fight to Barcelona before the visitors ran out 2-0 winners. Ahead of their latest  meeting, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the encounter.

Team News & Tactics

Barcelona

Ernesto Valverde has to contend with fresh roster problems ahead of the visit of Athletic Bilbao. On Sunday, the Barcelona boss will be without four first-team players due to injuries and suspension.

Sergio Busquets is the latest player on the treatment table after sustaining a toe injury in the win over Chelsea. The Spaniard has joined Nelson Semedo (hamstring) and Denis Suarez (groin) on the sidelines. Luis Suarez misses out as well, with the Uruguayan striker suspended after he picked up his fifth booking of the season at Malaga last week.

Paco Alcacer is likely to fill the void left by Suarez, with the Spanish striker lining up alongside Lionel Messi, who should return to La Liga action after missing the win over Malaga due to the birth of his son. But, it is Busquets’ absence that provides Bilbao a slight sniff in the match.

Ivan Rakitic is likely to assume the role of the holding midfielder in his stead, with Valverde turning to the versatile Croat to use his work-rate to good effect in the middle of the park. Meanwhile, Philippe Coutinho is expected to replace Andres Iniesta in the starting lineup, with the Barcelona captain not fully fit.

Ousmane Dembele should look to continue his recent upturn in form, having scored his first goal in Barcelona colours in the midweek. Alongside Coutinho, the Frenchman will provide the creative nous, especially with Rakitic assuming a more defensive role.

Probable Starting Lineup (4-4-2): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Dembele, Paulinho, Rakitic, Coutinho; Messi, Alcacer

Barca

Athletic Bilbao

Jose Angel Ziganda, too, has a number of injury concerns to deal with before making the trip to Camp Nou. Against Barcelona on Sunday, the Athletic Bilbao boss will be without as many as five first-team players due to various fitness problems.

Yeray Alvarez is the latest player to pick up an injury, with the Spaniard sustaining a hamstring strain in the loss to Marseille. Mikel Balenziaga (muscle injury), Iker Undabarrene (cruciate ligament), Mikel Rico (hamstring) are the other players on the treatment table. Iker Muniain has returned to training, but the game has come too soon for him.

The key area for the visitors will be a defensive unit that has shown a lot of promise, but has also flattered to deceive all too often. Unai Nunez and Inigo Martinez, who have both been linked with Barcelona in recent months, will need to show that the talk about their respective potentials isn’t just that, and shore up the backline.

Upfront, Inaki Williams is likely to lead the line for Bilbao, with Aritz Aduriz dropping to the bench. Markel Susaeta and Inigo Cordoba will be the players who will provide a pacy outlet in the wide areas, pegging back Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto respectively to also cut off Barcelona’s supply chain in the process.

Probable Starting Lineup (4-2-3-1): Kepa; Lekue, Nunez, Martinez, Saborit; San Jose, Iturraspe; Susaeta, Raul Garcia, Cordoba; Williams

Key Stats

  • Barcelona have won their last eight league games against Athletic Bilbao, keeping a clean sheet in six of these matches. They have never won nine games in a row against the Basque side in the top flight.
  • Athletic Bilbao have lost 60 away games against Barcelona in La Liga; more than against any other team (P86 W17 D9 L60).
  • Athletic Bilbao have lost each of their last three away league games, failing to score in all of them. The last time they they did so in four times in a row was in October 2014 under Ernesto Valverde.
  • Lionel Messi has scored 16 goals in his 18 games at Camp Nou against Athletic Bilbao in all competitions. Only against Sevilla (19) and Espanyol (18) has the Argentine player netted more goals for Barcelona.
  • No defender has provided more assists in La Liga this season than Jordi Alba (seven, level with Eibar’s Jose Angel).

Player To Watch

Kepa Arrizabalaga

A tough ask at the Nou Camp. (Photo courtesy - Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

A tough ask at the Nou Camp. (Photo courtesy – Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

All through the season, Kepa, heralded as the next big thing in Spain’s rich goalkeeping heritage, was a subject of intense speculation. But, having pledged his future to Athletic Bilbao, the youngster needs to deliver on a consistent basis, something that hasn’t exactly been the case this season.

The game against Barcelona offers him to enhance his stature further, and a good showing will only help his case for a ticket to Russia. In the shorter term, a solid outing could help Athletic in their bid to make a late tilt for the Europa League spots.

Prediction

Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

Sunday’s early evening game sees two sides with contrasting fortunes this season go against each other. There has been very little stopping Barcelona, while Athletic Bilbao have looked anything like the side that qualified for Europe last season.

A side full of potential, the visitors have struggled to deliver consistently, and their poor record at Camp Nou hardly helps their case. The absence of Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez is the only thing pegging Barcelona back, but Ernesto Valverde should have enough in their kitty to coast to a win against the manager’s former side on Sunday.

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