Athletic are a familiar Spanish Cup opponent for Barça with this tie being the sixth time in nine years that the sides have met in this competition. In the previous five meetings Barcelona have came out on top every time including three wins in the Final (2009, 2012, 2015). Although Barça have had the better of the Spanish Cup meetings they have suffered at the hands of the Basque side in recent times. In 2015 Barcelona won five of the six tournaments they played in with the only trophy they failed to win being the Spanish Super Cup. Their opponents were Athletic and they were well beaten 4-0 in the first leg at San Mames thanks to an Aritz Aduriz hat trick. They could only manage a 1-1 draw in the second leg at Camp Nou which saw Les Leones lift the trophy 5-1 on aggregate.

Athletic come into this game in reasonable form, especially at home, with just one defeat in their last 14 games at San Mames. That sole defeat was to Barcelona back in August when an Ivan Rakitic goal was the difference between the sides as Barça ran out 1-0 winners. Ernesto Valverde’s side are sitting 7th in La Liga on 26 points, just three behind fourth placed Villarreal. 19 of Athletic’s points have came in home games and that form has continued into their Europa League campaign where nine of their 10 points came in front of their own fans. Les Leones made it through to the last 16 of the Spanish Cup with a 5-1 aggregate win over Racing Santander which once again included a 3-0 home win.

Barcelona come into this game in decent form themselves after a run of four successive victories in which they scored 18 goals and conceded one to finish what had been a rather mixed year. The first half of 2016 saw the club win a domestic double which was a fantastic achievement but there was some disappointment after a poor run in April which had saw them allow their rivals back into the title race and also saw Atletico Madrid put them out of the Champions League. The latter half of the year has seen a lot of inconsistent performances from the Catalan giants with some outrageous highs, usually involving vintage displays from Lionel Messi and saw real lows including defeats to Alaves and Celta de Vigo. That mixed form sees them sit three points behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga having played a game more than Zinedine Zidane’s side. However, the four wins to finish 2016 combined with some excellent displays from Messi and Andrés Iniesta has brought about an unusual air of optimism among many Cules.

It’s difficult to know how both managers will set their teams up on Thursday night after a two week break. Valverde and Luis Enrique will be conscious of a heavy schedule over the next few weeks with both sides set to play four games in nine days so they may consider rotating their squads for what promises to be a hectic run of fixtures. Athletic will definitely be without Iñigo Lekue, Óscar De Marcos and Yeray Alvarez due to injury but Beñat Etxebarria will be fit and is in the matchday squad. For Barcelona only Jasper Cillessen is ruled out due to injury but Denis Suarez, Aleix Vidal and Jeremy Mathieu have not made the matchday squad.

San Mames can be a very difficult place to go and Luis Enrique has been burned here before when he rotated his team in the 2015 Spanish Super Cup so he will be well aware of the dangers of making changes but with Barcelona behind in the league and a very difficult trip to Villarreal coming up on Sunday he might be tempted to rest some stars especially as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar only returned to training on Monday after spending the holidays back in South America. Another decision the manager will have to make is who starts in goal with Cillessen injured. Marc-Andre ter Stegen is the first choice goalkeeper but it was expected that Cillessen would start in the Spanish Cup so Luis Enrique will have to decide whether to promote Jordi Masip for what would be a rare start.

On top form Barcelona should be good enough to beat Athletic but it remains to be seen whether the holidays have helped or hindered Barça. They finished 2016 in sublime form with a superb win over Espanyol in the derby before a second string side easily disposed of Hércules in the last round of the Spanish Cup but has that form held up throughout the holiday period? Traditionally, Barcelona have struggled in the first fixture of the new year under Luis Enrique’s guidance with a 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad in 2015 and a 0-0 draw against Espanyol in 2016. While a repeat of those results wouldn’t be a disaster with the second leg still to come next Wednesday night, Barcelona might be wise to go for the jugular in this game in the hope that they can gain an advantage for the second leg which will give them the option to rest players next week. Obviously, that’s easier said than done against a good Athletic team who will be hopeful of catching Barcelona cold like they did on that famous night 17 months ago.

Referee

David Fernández Borbalán will be the referee for Thursday nights game. In the last five games Borbalán has refereed Barça they have won three, drew one and lost one. In those games he has booked 10 Barcelona players and awarded them two penalties. In his last five games refereeing Athletic they have won once, drew twice and lost twice. In those games he booked 14 and sent off one Athletic player. He has also awarded one penalty to and against Athletic.

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