Barcelona will be aiming to build on their promising start to the 2021/22 season when they take on Athletic Bilbao at San Mames this weekend in La Liga.
Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding the club due to their off-the-field issues and the shock departure of Lionel Messi, Barcelona were able to put it all behind and make a positive start to the season last weekend. And they will be hoping to continue in the same vein of form when they travel to the Basque country to face off against Athletic Bilbao on Saturday night.
Barcelona, as iterated earlier, kicked off the 2021/22 campaign in a positive manner, thrashing Real Sociedad 4-2 at Camp Nou to set the tone for what is to come from this new-look team with no Messi. Despite the absence of perhaps the greatest ever Barcelona player, Ronald Koeman’s men showed they are more than capable of dealing with it and will remain a force to be reckoned with.
As for Athletic Bilbao, the new season wasn’t off to the most exciting of starts as they played out a goalless draw against Elche in their opening game. Marcelino’s side finished tenth in the La Liga standings last time out and will be intent on making a push for a top-six place. For that to happen, though, they will need to pick up wins from the onset of the campaign, starting with this weekend.
The corresponding fixture last season, played in January earlier this year, ended in a 2-3 win for Barcelona, courtesy of a Lionel Messi brace. Ahead of their latest meeting at San Mames on Saturday, The Hard Tackle now takes a closer look at both teams.
Team News & Tactics
Athletic Bilbao have several players missing for the visit of Barcelona as manager Marcelino will have to make do without Yuri Berchiche, Peru Nolaskoain, Alex Petxa while Kenan Codro and Inigo Cordoba also remain doubts for the contest along with Ander Capa, along with Oscar De Marcos. In addition, Unai Simon is also unlikely to feature in goal as he has asked to be rested after his exertions in the summer.
Los Leones will line up in a typical 4-4-2 formation defending with two blocks of four while they look to hit Barcelona on the break when they force a turnover. In the absence of Simon, Julen Agirrezabala will be guarding the goal for the home team, protected by the centre-back pairing of Inigo Martinez and Yeray Alvarez.
With both Capa and De Marcos doubts, Inigo Lekue could get the nod at right-back while Mikel Balenziaga occupies the left-back slot. The duo will have its task cut out against the threat posed by Barcelona’s wide forwards as well as their marauding full-backs. Dani Garcia and Unai Vencedor will be tasked with providing an additional shield to the backline against Barcelona’s midfield runners.
Alex Berenguez and captain Iker Muniain ought to line up on the flanks for Athletic, with the duo acting as the chief chance-creators for the strike-partnership of Inaki Williams and Raul Garcia, who is set to replace Oihan Sancet. Their output will be essential in Athletic addressing their dry run in front of goal.
Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Agirrezabala; Lekue, Alvarez, Martinez, Balenziaga; Berenguer, D. Garcia, Vencedor, Muniain; Williams, R. Garcia
Barcelona do not have any fresh injury concerns heading into the contest, with veteran defender Gerard Pique fit and named in the travelling squad after picking up a knock in the last game. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Ansu Fati, Sergio Aguero and Ousmane Dembele remain sidelined with injuries, while Oscar Mingueza and Philippe Coutinho are yet to work back to full fitness and miss out as well.
Ronald Koeman is expected to stick with the 4-3-3 formation that worked so well last time out, with there being a minimal likelihood of major personnel changes as well. Neto ought to be the man between the sticks once again for the Catalan giants, where he will be shielded by the backline of Sergino Dest, Pique, Eric Garcia and Jordi Alba.
Captain Sergio Busquets will sit the deepest in the midfield from where he will look to act as the conduit between the two halves of the pitch while also cutting out any potential threats from the hosts. Frenkie de Jong and Pedri should be the other two midfielders, who will have the task of providing the forward thrust and creativity from the centre of the park for the Blaugrana.
Memphis Depay, who enjoyed a fine debut against Sociedad, will once again pose a major threat from the left. His budding partnership with Alba could prove to be dangerous for Athletic Bilbao. Antoine Griezmann ought to be stationed again on the right from where he will look to drift infield and play close to the striker, who will once again be Martin Braithwaite after his stunning display in the opening game.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Neto; Dest, Pique, Garcia, Alba; de Jong, Busquets, Pedri; Griezmann, Braithwaite, Depay
- Barcelona have won 12 of their last 15 matches against Athletic Bilbao in La Liga (D2 L1), including each of the last three. They have nine clean sheets in these 15 games.
- Athletic Bilbao have not won any of their last five La Liga games (D2 L3), failing to score in each of their last four.
- Barcelona have lost just one of their last 20 visits to Basque sides in La Liga (W14 D5), although this defeat came against Athletic Bilbao in 2019.
- Iker Muniain has been directly involved in three of Athletic Bilbao’s last six home goals against Barcelona in La Liga (2G 1A).
- Barcelona’s Antoine Greizmann has been directly involved in 15 goals against Athletic in La Liga (9G 6A), more than he has against any other opponent.
Player to Watch
Some people like to talk. I do my talking on the pitch ⚽️ pic.twitter.com/8n9VCdB87V
— Martin Braithwaite (@MartinBraith) August 16, 2021
In just one appearance this season, Barcelona forward Martin Braithwaite has already scored as many La Liga goals as he did in the whole of the last campaign (29 games). The Dane was on fire against Real Sociedad in the opening weekend, bagging two goals, while he also got an assist and had the most number of shots by any Blaugrana player in the contest.
Despite not being the most celebrated member of this Barca squad, Braithwaite has chipped in with valuable contributions whenever needed. And, his performance last week showed that he could be ready to play a much bigger role in Ronald Koeman’s new-look side. Now, it is upon the former Leganes forward to prove that the opening weekend was not a one-time thing, and he has what it takes to produce such displays consistently.
Athletic Bilbao 0-2 Barcelona
Barcelona allayed any fears of them struggling without Lionel Messi when they put up a fine display to defeat Real Sociedad in the opening game. And while Athletic Bilbao might be more difficult to break down, Ronald Koeman’s frontline boasts of immense quality that can be tough to handle for the hosts, who will be without their first-choice goalkeeper and full-backs for the game.
Barcelona, themselves, have not been all that secure at the back, but given Athletic’s struggles in front of goal, they should be able to secure a rare clean sheet this weekend. The Hard Tackle predicts a 2-0 victory for the Blaugrana extending their winning start to the 2021/22 season.