Barcelona will be looking to shake off the dust after a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich on Tuesday. The Catalans will travel to San Mames to take on Athletic Bilbao in a match that deserves immense hype.
For Barcelona, a victory coupled with a Real Madrid defeat would give the Catalans the La Liga title. But it won’t be that easy.
The Basque hosts currently sit 13th in the La Liga table and have a lot to prove against the current leaders. Playing at home will surely be in their favor, and Barcelona will have much more to deal with than usual.
For starters, Tito Vilanova will need to rest some of his key players ahead of the Champions League meeting with Bayern Munich. That means fans will not see Barcelona at their full strength, which could give Bilbao a fighting chance.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the match preview from San Mames.
Athletic Bilbao will not have much to contend with as far as squad strength. However, there will be one glaring absentee from the team sheet.
Eighteen-year-old defender Aymeric Laporte is set to miss the rest of the season after picking up a knee injury in last week’s draw with Deportivo (via Football-Espana).
Barcelona will enter the San Mames without substantial news as far as the team sheet is concerned.
Vilanova will likely rest several players ahead of the midweek clash. But there will be a selection headache at the front line.
After Barca’s loss to Bayern, reports agreed that Lionel Messi was not fully fit (via Goal). It is highly unlikely that the Argentine will play against Bilbao, leaving Vilanova with the question of who will take his place.
One player who will not be rested, though, is Jordi Alba.
The Spaniard will face suspension in Barcelona’s second-leg meeting with Bayern Munich meaning that Alba is a lock to start in defense at San Mames.
Athletic Bilbao has won only two of their last 11 games dating back to February. The Basque side has struggled to find their best all season, and the solution has not been discovered yet.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side has already missed out on a chance to play in Europe next season, but they have not given up on a better finish in La Liga.
Two weeks ago the Basque side lost 3-0 to Real Madrid, but the score does not tell what truly happened.
For the majority of the match it was Bilbao who was in control. Their ability to press and attack made things very hard for Real Madrid. Expect Bilbao to bring the same pressure and energy at home against Barcelona.
La Blaugrana has played multiple La Liga games without Lionel Messi as of late.
After a 5-0 victory against Mallorca and a 3-0 thrashing of Zaragoza, it appeared as though not having Messi would not harm their La Liga play at all.
But after a narrow 1-0 victory against Levante last week, the Catalans were reminded that things are not always easy.
Regardless of who is playing, Barcelona has not been their best as of late. They are still heavy favorites to beat Bilbao despite current form, but do not expect this match to be an easy one by any means.
The Last Meeting
In their first meeting of the season, Barcelona took down Bilbao at the Camp Nou by a score of 5-1. Lionel Messi scored an impressive brace, and the match was nothing short of Barca brilliance.
Ibai Gomez was able to get on the score sheet, but by that point the match was already over.
Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Adriano all put a goal past Iraizoz as well. Bilbao left the Camp Nou done and dusted in December, but that was nearly five months ago.
This is a different Barcelona and much more organized Bilbao side. A 5-1 score line will be a thing of the past for sure.
Predicted Lineups and Score
With Barcelona forced to rest players, their starting lineup will be very interesting and somewhat difficult to predict.
Gerard Pique is in great need of rest as is Dani Alves. But the real question comes in who starts in the front three forward positions. It is likely that whoever starts up front will not be competing in the Champions League clash at midweek.
Bilbao on the other hand will have the luxury of starting basically their strongest side. They will throw their best at Barcelona at home and look to steal points off of the beast that has their attention elsewhere.
Barcelona: Vales; Montoya, Bartra, Abidal, Alba; Thiago, Song, Iniesta; Alexis, Cesc Fabregas, Tello
Atheltic Bilbao: Iraizoz; Iraola, Gurpegi, Ekiza, Aurtenetxe; Herrera, Iturraspe, De Marcos; Susaeta, Llorente, Muniain
With the La Liga title practically one win away, Barcelona is expected to perform regardless of who is starting. The Catalans should leave San Mames victorious but it will be a much closer game than usual.
I predict a 3-2 victory for Barcelona with Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez combining in a strong attack as they have done recently. But Bilbao will take advantage of a weaker defense.
How do you see this match playing out? Who should start for Barcelona? Leave your thoughts and comments below.
Tre’ Atkinson. Follow me on Twitter for more discussions on Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and La Liga.