Barcelona will begin the defence of their La Liga title with the season opening fixture on Friday, when they pay Athletic Bilbao a visit at San Mames.

After the Premier League last week, it is now the turn of the La Liga season to get underway. Friday will see the reigning champions, Barcelona take the field and kick off the season, with Athletic Bilbao playing hosts to Ernesto Valverde’s men at San Mames.

Las season was far from ideal for Athletic Bilbao, who will not play European football for a second successive campaign. But, it was a much improved output from the Basque club, who ended only narrowly missed out on Europa League and finished 8th. While pre-season results were not overly positive, the fact that his men were in among the goals would fill Gaizka Garitano with confidence.

Barcelona, on the other hand, are coming off a mixed bag of a season, wherein they did win the La Liga title once again. But, the fact that they failed to win the UEFA Champions League and the Copa del Rey left a sour taste. The pre-season saw Ernesto Valverde & co. start off slowly before hitting their stride in the two wins over Napoli.

The corresponding fixture last season ended in a drab goalless draw, with Barcelona managing to muster up just two shots on target. Ahead of the latest meeting between the two sides, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at the encounter.

Team News & Tactics

Athletic Bilbao

Can Garitano & his men spring a surprise on Friday? (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Can Garitano & his men spring a surprise on Friday? (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Gaizka Garitano has a few pressing injury concerns to deal with ahead of the visit of Barcelona. On Friday, the Athletic Bilbao boss will be without as many as five first-team players, with Inigo Martinez being the major absentee.

The Spanish international is only a short-term absentee, but his unavailability means Unai Nunez will likely be thrust into the side to partner Yeray Alvarez at the heart of the Athletic Bilbao defence. The duo should be flanked by Oscar de Marcos and Mikel Balenziaga, with Yuri Berchiche expected to start in an advanced role down the left flank.

Berchiche will likely be deployed on the left side of the Athletic Bilbao attack due to the absence of Ibai Gomez (calf), who also has Inigo Lekue (thigh), Inigo Cordoba (thigh) and Gorka Guruzeta (knee) for company in the injury room.

On the right flank, Iker Muniain will be the man Garitano will place his faith on, with the 26-year-old also expected to don the armband. Raul Garcia is expected to start in the hold for the Basque outfit, with Inaki Williams leading the line for the hosts.

The onus though, will be on the midfield double pivot, which should comprise of Mikel San Jose and Dani Garcia, with the duo being tasked with stifling Barcelona’s build-up play. The backup will come in the form of Gaizka Larrazabal and Aritz Aduriz, who is beginning his final season of professional football.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Herrerin; de Marcos, Yeray, Nunez, Balenziaga; San Jose, Dani Garcia; Muniain, Raul Garcia, Yuri Berchiche; Inaki Williams

Bilbao

Barcelona

Ernesto Valverde will be bereft of the services of just two players, although one of the absentees is Barcelona captain and talisman Lionel Messi. The Argentine, who returned late due to his participation in the Copa America, is also struggling with a calf injury and will play no part against Athletic Bilbao.

In Messi’s absence, Ousmane Dembele will get a golden opportunity to make an impression on the Barcelona boss, with the Frenchman expected to start on the left side of the attacking unit. Dembele will be joined by Luis Suarez and summer signing Antoine Griezmann, who is set to make his debut for the La Liga champions.

Also in line to make his first competitive appearance for Barcelona, is Frenkie de Jong, who should start in the midfield trifecta. The former Ajax star will be the creative outlet in the middle of the park, with Sergio Busquets sitting in the engine room, as always. The final spot in the side should be taken up by Ivan Rakitic, although Sergi Roberto is an alternative.

Valverde will also be without backup goalkeeper Neto, although with Marc-Andre ter Stegen fit and available, he does not have much to worry about on that front. The defensive line in front of ter Stegen picks itself, with Gerard Pique having Clement Lenglet for company at the heart of the Barcelona defence, with Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba being the full-backs.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Rakitic, Busquets, de Jong; Dembele, Suarez, Griezmann

Barcelona

Key Stats

  • Both league matches between the two teams last season finished level – the points being shared in a 1-1 draw at Camp Nou in September 2018 before a goalless draw at San Mames in February
  • Barcelona have won on four of their last five trips to San Mames in La Liga, with last season’s goalless draw the only occasion in this duration when they have failed to grab all three points.
  • Athletic Bilbao are unbeaten in their last ten La Liga games at San Mames, including the 0-0 draw with Barcelona last season (W7 D3).
  • This will be the tenth time that Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao will open their respective La Liga campaigns against each other. In nine previous such meetings, the Blaugrana have won six times (D2 L1).
  • Barcelona have won each of their last ten La Liga Matchday 1 fixtures, with Numancia last getting the better of them in 2008-09.

Player to Watch

Antoine Griezmann

The key man for Barcelona. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The key man for Barcelona. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The big news this summer surrounded the transfer saga of Antoine Griezmann, who finally joined Barcelona last month after a lot of hoopla was created over his move. The Frenchman, who has consistently been one of the best players in La Liga in recent years ought to add a lot of value to the Catalans’ squad.

Griezmann though, will have more responsibility than he might have envisioned in his debut, with Lionel Messi unavailable. The absence of the Barcelona captain means the 2018 World Cup winner will need to play an integral role in the build-up play while also being expected to come up with the goods in front of goal. An eventful debut awaits for Griezmann.

Prediction

Athletic Bilbao 1-2 Barcelona

With Lionel Messi missing, this should be a close game, wherein Athletic Bilbao might even fancy a shock win. It has been hard for teams to stop the Basque club from scoring at their own home, where they have not lost for a long time. Bilbao also managed to hold Barcelona to a draw in this stretch of solid form at San Mames.

The odds for this La Liga encounter are not in Athletic Bilbao’s favour but Barcelona aren’t heavy favourites, especially without Lionel Messi.

But, Antoine Griezmann and Frenkie de Jong could be the real game changers for Barcelona on the day, with the former, in particular, being a fearsome force in Spanish football for years. With Luis Suarez showing fine form during the pre-season, a decent start to the campaign can be expected.

In the end, we expect Barcelona to narrowly edge Bilbao and grab all three points. The Hard Tackle predicts a 2-1 win for Ernesto Valverde & co. in a game that could be too close for comfort for the La Liga champions.

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