preview | 2017-01-11
Match Preview - Spanish Cup Last 16 - Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao
After a convoluted first leg, Barça needs a win at the Camp Nou to reach the quarterfinals
Barcelona are back in action on Wednesday night where they will be aiming to pick up their first win of 2017 when they play Athletic Club in the second leg of their Copa del Rey tie. Barça lost 2-1 in Thursday's first leg at San Mames before following that up with a 1-1 draw away to Villarreal in La Liga. Those two results have led to mass hysteria among Culés who are trying to understand what it is that has led to such a disappointing campaign so far.
There can be no doubt that the Barcelona squad is packed full of world class players and in terms of trophies won it is difficult to criticise Luis Enrique who has won five of the six major trophies available during his tenure. However, something is not right at Camp Nou and with the clubs hopes of retaining La Liga hanging by a thread it would be a bitter pill to swallow if they were to lose their grip on the Copa del Rey on Wednesday night.
Culés are split on the reasons things have gone so badly wrong with some believing Luis Enrique has lost the dressing room, while others feel some of the key players are getting a little older and there are also a number of individual players shouldering the blame. Ultimately only a privileged few will really know the truth as we don't know what is going on behind closed doors at Camp Nou. Luis Enrique isn't the first manager who has witnessed his teams levels of performance drop after a few seasons. Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti are all among a long list of managers who have enjoyed success at various clubs across Europe before a sudden drop in form has led to them resigning or being sacked. Is this what has happened at Barcelona and is there a way back for Lucho?
If Luis Enrique watched a video of his team in the treble winning season and compared it to recent performances what would be the main differences? For a start the Barcelona of 2014/15 looked to have a lot more energy. Every time the opposition had the ball Barça would hound them all over the pitch and right now this isn't happening. Remember the Luis Suarez of old (or of two or three months ago)? He simply wouldn't give defenders a minutes peace and was constantly niggling away at them. Nowadays he seems to be swallowed up by packed defences and fails to get involved in most of the play. Lionel Messi also often fails to press in the way he used to and one wonders if this is something they are failing to do or whether it's a tactical decision coming from the manager. It has been well documented that last season's poor run in April was attributed to tiredness so could it be that Luis Enrique is over compensating for this by allowing his players to lower their levels of intensity?
Another difference Luis Enrique would notice would be how cautious the team has become. In years gone by Barça have had games won with an opening blitz in the first half an hour or so but these days they seem to be slowly feeling their way into games instead of playing with the confidence and swagger that has made them dominate throughout the last decade. This could be purely a lack of confidence during what has at times been a difficult season but too often Barcelona have been drawn into tense, turgid affairs against what is often inferior opposition. If Barcelona were to throw caution to the wind from the opening whistle instead of showing teams the respect they are at present then a lot of teams would struggle and certainly wouldn’t be so confident to press so high up the pitch.
If Barcelona don’t manage to turn around the deficit on Wednesday night they certainly won’t be able to complain about injuries as Luis Enrique will have his full squad available with the news Jasper Cillessen has returned to fitness. It remains to be seen whether he will replace Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the starting eleven but it seems likely that the Dutchman will get the start as was always the plan for the Copa del Rey.
Athletic Club don’t have the same luxury as Barcelona with regards to their squad with seven players ruled out. Raúl Garcia and Ander Iturraspe are both suspended after being sent off in the first leg and Íñigo Lekue, Óscar De Marcos, Ager Akétxe and Kepa Arrizabalaga will miss out due to injury. Another player who won’t be taking part in the game will be Athletic’s young defender, Yeray Álvarez. Álvarez recently underwent treatment for testicular cancer which naturally we all hope was a success and he can return to the field in the not so distant future.
With Barcelona struggling for form amid a tight schedule it is expected Luis Enrique will make some changes for this game but it has been difficult to second guess what he is going to do this season. André Gomes was the latest to disappoint as the third midfielder in place of Ivan Rakitic at the weekend so Denis Suarez or Rafinha may get a chance to state their claim for a place in the lineup. Regardless of what team starts this is a must win game for the club and not just because anything less than a win (a win might not even be enough if it is 3-2, 4-3, 5-4 etc, as Barcelona would go out on away goals) would see the club eliminated from the Copa del Rey. Confidence is low among everyone associated with the club but we are well aware that players of the quality that Barcelona possess can’t be kept down forever and every game has the potential to be the one that sparks a change in form which could potentially save the 2016/17 season.
Wednesday’s game will be refereed by Jesús Gil Manzano. In the last five games with him as referee Barça have won three, drew one and lost one. In those games he has booked 15 Barcelona players and awarded the team one penalty. In his last five games refereeing Athletic they have won four and drew one. He has booked 11 Athletic players and awarded one penalty against them.
Head to Head
Wednesday night will be the 222nd meeting between these sides. Barcelona have won 110, Athletic have won 75 and the other 36 have been drawn. In those games Barcelona have scored 411 goals and conceded 319.
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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.