Barcelona will be looking to put the midweek setback behind them when they welcome Athletic Bilbao to Camp Nou on Saturday evening

The games continue to come thick and fast in La Liga, with Matchday 7 beginning less than 24 hours after the previous one ended. The key games in the Spanish top flight though, will be played on Saturday, one of which features Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at Camp Nou, with the Blaugrana looking to get back to winning ways.

Barcelona have kicked off the 2018-19 season strongly enough, as they sit atop the La Liga table after the first six matchdays. But, Ernesto Valverde’s men suffered their first blip of the campaign in a 2-1 defeat, with Leganes coming from a goal down to stun them in the midweek tie. Fortunately for the Catalans, Real Madrid were beaten on the same night, helping them retain their top spot.

Athletic Bilbao too, were handed their first defeat of the season earlier this week – a crushing 3-0 loss at home at the hands of Villarreal that was a result of a defensive collapse in the final 25 minutes of the game. Indeed, defensive frailties have pegged the visitors back so far, which reflects in their position on the table – a lowly 15th.

The corresponding fixture last season ended in a comfortable 2-0 win for Barcelona, with a solid first-half performance being enough to secure all three points. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the La Liga encounter.

Team News & Tactics

Barcelona

Lionel Messi & co. will be eager to move on quickly from the Leganes setback. (Photo courtesy - Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi & co. will be eager to move on quickly from the Leganes setback. (Photo courtesy – Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images)

Ernesto Valverde is not beset with many injury problems in his squad ahead of the visit of Athletic Bilbao on Saturday. But, a crisis is brewing in the central defensive unit, with the Barcelona boss welcoming back one defender and losing another key centre-back for the foreseeable future.

Clement Lenglet is back after serving his one-match ban after being sent off against Girona last week. But, compatriot Samuel Umtiti has sustained a knee injury in training, and will be on the treatment table for the better part of the next month, if not longer.

That leaves Barcelona in a tight spot and Valverde with Lenglet, Thomas Vermaelen and Gerard Pique as the only recognised centre-backs at his disposal for a considerable period. The manager will hope for an improved performance from the trio, who have been disastrous lately. On Saturday, Pique and Lenglet should get the nod, with the latter getting another opportunity to impress.

With one regular already unavailable, Valverde will likely name a strong lineup to get over the finish line against Bilbao, as he can ill afford another slip up. Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez should thus, return to the starting lineup, with Munir El Haddadi dropping out.

The likes of Sergi Roberto, Ivan Rakitic and Philippe Coutinho should retain their places, as should Ousmane Dembele, despite his poor form in recent games, with Malcom left out of the matchday squad by Valverde.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, Coutinho; Messi, Suarez, Dembele

FCB

Athletic Bilbao

Eduardo Berizzo does not have many pressing concerns hampering his preparations ahead of the trip to Camp Nou. On Saturday, the Athletic Bilbao boss will have just two first-team players on the sidelines, with Inigo Lekue recovering from a long-term ankle injury and Iago Herrerin making his way back from an elbow problem.

There are doubts over the availability of Aritz Aduriz, who has been unavailable since Bilbao’s first game of the season due to a hamstring strain. But, the veteran striker is back in training and faces a late fitness test to determine whether he will be part of Berizzo’s matchday squad.

Another positive ahead of the game against Barcelona is the return of Markel Susaeta, who served a one-match ban against Villarreal. The presence of Susaeta in the starting lineup will be a huge boost for Berizzo and Bilbao, with the captain’s darting runs adding a lot of dynamism to their attack.

The manager though, will hope for better showings from Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams, who will need to be clinical and effective in the final third for the Basque side to take anything from the game. More importantly, the defence will need to tighten up, with Berizzo’s expansive style leaving holes open at the back.

While Unai Simon has been sensational since being called up to the first-team setup, the same cannot be said about experienced defenders Yeray Alvarez and Inigo Martinez. Yuri Berchiche and Oscar de Marcos, with the Barcelona full-backs looking to bombard forward regularly.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Simon; de Marcos, Alvarez, Martinez, Yuri; Dani Garcia, San Jose; Susaeta, Raul Garcia, Muniain; Williams

Bilbao

Key Stats

  • Fortress Camp Nou – Barcelona have won each of their last eight games at home against Athletic Bilbao.
  • In fact, Athletic Bilbao have not won a single game against Barcelona at Camp Nou in any competition since November 2001 (D4 L17).
  • Porous at the back – Athletic Bilbao have conceded at least one goal in each of their five games in La Liga this season.
  • Barcelona are not much better than their visitors either, having managed to keep a clean sheet in just two of their six league games thus far.
  • Barcelona have been imperious in front of goal at home this season, scoring a staggering 17 times in their four outings at Camp Nou in all competitions this season.

Player to Watch

Markel Susaeta

Will the Bilbao skipper heap the misery on the Barcelona defence? (Photo courtesy - Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Will the Bilbao skipper heap the misery on the Barcelona defence? (Photo courtesy – Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Athletic Bilbao evidently lacked leaders to get a lift during their midweek capitulation against Villarreal, particularly in the final third. To that end, the return of captain Markel Susaeta from suspension will be a huge boost for Eduardo Berizzo, with the 30-year-old often leading from the front.

Susaeta will be a big test for a vulnerable Barcelona defence, with his mazy runs and ability to pick a pass having the potential to put the visitors on the backfoot. If the Bilbao skipper comes to the party, the Basque side might just make a game out of Saturday’s clash.

Prediction

Barcelona 2-1 Athletic Bilbao

The last two results have been far from ideal for Barcelona, with two successive winless results being largely unheard of for them under Ernesto Valverde. But, that they still retain their place on top of the table, if only marginally so, should give them enough impetus to pull themselves together and get back to winning ways.

In Athletic Bilbao, the Blaugrana have a side that has been even more susceptible at the back than them. But, their own defensive vulnerabilities mean the match shouldn’t be short of goal mouth action. Valverde & co. though, should have more than enough firepower to get past Bilbao, especially if they start a full-strength side, bar Samuel Umtiti.

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