preview | 2017-02-03
Match Preview - La Liga Round 21 - Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao
Barça faces Valverde for the tenth time in the last two seasons
Barcelona return to La Liga action on Saturday afternoon with a difficult game against Athletic Club. Barca’s title hopes suffered another blow last weekend when they could only manage a 1-1 draw away to Real Betis and in truth the performance didn’t really warrant anything more although they were wrongly denied a goal when the officials failed to spot the ball well over the line minutes after Betis had gone in front. In the end Luis Suárez equalised in the dying minutes but with Barcelona playing catch up in the title race it was a disappointing result.
After the low of dropping vital league points last weekend the team responded in the best possible way with a very good 2-1 win over Atlético Madrid in the Vicente Calderón on Wednesday night in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final. Barça were superb in the first half with Luis Enrique’s tactics perfect as the Catalan giants took a 2-0 lead before half-time. Atleti came into the game a bit more after half-time and Diego Simeone’s side reduced the deficit when Antoine Griezmann netted with a header but that was as good as it got for the hosts as Barcelona held on against a late Atlético onslaught to earn a 2-1 advantage ahead of next week’s second leg.
On their way to the last four of the Copa del Rey Barcelona took on Saturday’s opponents, Athletic Club, at the last 16 stage. Athletic won the first leg 2-1 in Bilbao but Barcelona made the most of home advantage in the second leg winning 3-1 to secure passage to the quarter-finals. Athletic have been enjoying a good campaign this season and are currently seventh in La Liga, just four points behind Atlético in the fourth Champions League spot. Ernesto Valverde’s side have been over reliant on their home form this season and they have really struggled away from San Mames. Just eight of their 32 La Liga points came away from home and their seven goals scored in away games is joint worst in the division. Defensively they haven’t been too bad with 11 goals conceded which is the same amount as Barcelona have conceded away from Camp Nou. Athletic’s last away win came in September when they beat Granada and it is a big issue for the team who could really push for a Champions League spot if they can improve on their travels.
If Valverde is going to mastermind another positive result against Barcelona he will have to do so without the injured Sabin Merino and Kepa Arrizabalaga. Gorka Elustondo is also currently listed as a doubt and could join the duo on the sidelines. Athletic will be well organised when they come to Camp Nou on Saturday and their talented young defender, Yeray Álvarez could be in line for a first start since December. Yeray has been out after being diagnosed with testicular cancer and missed the two Copa games although Iñaki Williams did score in the 27th minute of the first leg when San Mames was applauding the young defender. Offensively, Athletic will once again rely on Williams (2 goals, 5 assists) as well as the veteran duo, Raul Garcia (5goals, 2 assists) and Aritz Aduriz (7 goals, 1 assist). Athletic have proven to be a difficult opponent for Barça in recent meetings and Saturday promises to be more of the same.
Barcelona have been enduring a mixed season and find themselves 2nd in La Liga alongside Sevilla on 42 points. Last weeks draw combined with a Real Madrid win over Real Sociedad means Barça are currently four points behind their rivals who have played a game less this season. La Liga is pretty much out of Barcelona’s hands now but Real Madrid face a difficult trip to Vigo to take on Celta on Sunday night so it is important that Luis Enrique’s side keep putting pressure on them and are poised to take advantage should they slip up.
Once again Barcelona will be without Sergio Busquets who is still injured but Andrés Iniesta might be in contention for a return as the captain is back in training. Lucho will probably not rush him back and it is more likely that if he is available he will start on the bench. With the Champions League due to get back underway in a few weeks Iniesta’s return to fitness will be a huge boost to Barcelona. Luis Enrique has been difficult to read this season with a lot of rotation and again he may decide to make some changes for this game. Barça are due to host Atleti in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final on Tuesday night and it is likely on such a short turnaround that he will ring the changes which could be risky as on their day Athletic are more than capable of springing an upset.
With Athletic so disappointing away from home and Barcelona having a good record at Camp Nou, Barça will be favourites to pick up the three points but there can be no place for complacency. Athletic have some talented players in their squad, with Williams and Aduriz in particular proving to be a thorn in Barcelona’s side in years past and Valverde will have his side ready to take advantage of any mistake Barça make. For Luis Enrique there will undoubtedly be temptation to make changes with the Atleti game in midweek but Barcelona have no margin for error in La Liga and this is a game where anything less than three points simply won’t be good enough.
González González will be the man in the middle on Saturday afternoon. In Barcelona’s last five with him in charge they have won three, drew one and lost one. In those games he has booked 16 Barcelona players, awarded them one penalty and awarded two to the opposition. In his last five Athletic games they have won four and lost one. In those games he has booked 19 Athletic players, gave them one penalty and awarded one against them.
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WRITTEN BY: Gerry Johnston
Gerry Johnston is a 31 year old Civil Servant from County Antrim, Ireland. Gerry has been writing about football for various websites since Euro 2012 and he has been a Barcelona fan since the mid 90s.