After giving their all against Schalke less than forty-eight hours before the match, will Athletic suffer from another European hangover tonight? Or will Barcelona’s prolonged stay in Milan prove to be more detrimental than Athletic’s lack of rest? Find out what we think after the jump.
Athletic Bilbao is a team capable of many things ever since Marcelo Bielsa took charge this season. They have awed many spectators with their amazing performances such as the two-legged tie against Manchester United or the big win against Malaga. Or they could string out some theatrical, almost naive, free-scoring games where they throw caution to the wind. One thing to keep in mind though is that their squad is really thin, so competing in three fronts might prove to be too much for Bilbao and Bielsa.
Training the team to be more adept in the possession game, Bielsa took a very radical and n- holds-barred approach to get his message through to the players. De Marcos, originally a winger, is fielded at wing back. Then Javi Martinez, naturally a defensive midfielder who just helped Spain’s under-21 squad to win the under-21 European Championships last summer, is employed as a ball-playing centre back. Iraola the right wing back is given freedom to roam forward to dribble and shoot. The many training sessions and experiments might not have worked at the beginning, but as the match against Manchester United showed, Bielsa’s philosophy is really devastating when it works well.
Fortunately for Barcelona, there are some things that can make tonight’s match very different from the one played early in the season where it ended 2-2 in San Mames. First and foremost will be the pristine condition of Camp Nou’s pitch, which will enable the ball to move and bounce consistently. In the away matches in which Barcelona dropped points, the pitch looked to be in a horrible condition. This hampers ball movement greatly and Barcelona struggles when this happens. Pep Guardiola could probably devise a training plan to make his players accustomed to this condition, most likely by making them train on a pitch with similar characteristics.
The second one will be Bilbao’s Europa league match against Schalke which took place less than forty-eight hours before tonight’s match. Llorente and Ander Herrera have been playing with injuries and it’s not likely that Bielsa will want to take any risk to aggravate their injuries. Other players will undoubtedly be tired as well, so we can expect Bilbao to operate with much less pressure than usual. This scenario also links to the fact: this year, Bilbao haven’t won any league match right after playing a match in the Europa league.
The third and final point is that Bielsa will use this match as an experiment; to get a better feel on how to handle Barcelona in an uncontrolled environment. Just as in Camp Nou, the Vicente Calderón will also have a standard pitch and this will require a different set of preparations for Bilbao. There is a big possibility that these experiments will be a good time for Barcelona to stamp their authority on the pitch and take over the game. Especially if Bilbao pressure less and try to defend deep and hope for the best in a quick counter attack, which is how majority of Barcelona’s opponents play.
For the starting eleven prediction, here is what we have in mind. The two full-backs need to be experienced enough to handle Susaeta and Muniain. That points to Puyol and Alves, so the duet centre back will be Pique and Mascherano. In midfield, Xavi will be rested for the important second leg against Milan so Iniesta and Thiago will be employed here although Fabregas should have some minutes to regain his match fitness. Meanwhile, the front three will comprise of Pedro, who has an excellent workrate and Cuenca with his accurate crosses and trickery. Messi can be used as starter but this might be the time that Messi will be subbed off to really preserve his energy for Milan.
Held to a goalless draw in Milan, Barcelona took a very cautious and prudent approach. In tonight’s match, expect a more proactive Barcelona who wants to have their scoring touch back.
|R. Santander||0 – 2||FC Barcelona|
|Sevilla||0 – 2||FC Barcelona|
|FC Barcelona||5 – 3||Granada|
|Mallorca||0 – 2||FC Barcelona|
|AC Milan||0 – 0||FC Barcelona|
Villa, Fontas, and Abidal continue to be on the long term absentee list, meanwhile Afellay is back on the training pitch but he is still not fit enough to make it into the match squad. Adriano is also doubtful after his injury against Granada 11 days ago.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdes – Puyol – Mascherano – Pique – Dani Alves – Busquets – Iniesta – Thiago – Messi – Cuenca – Pedro
Relentless at home and fearless when playing away, Bilbao is capable of beating any team on their day. But it looks like the odds are against them in this match as they have just finished playing less than forty-eight hours before tonight’s game.
|Ath. Bilbao||2 – 1||Manchester Utd|
|Ath. Bilbao||0 – 3||Valencia|
|Atl. Madrid||2 – 1||Ath. Bilbao|
|Ath. Bilbao||1 – 1||Sp. Gijon|
|Schalke 04||2 – 4||Ath. Bilbao|
Predicted Starting XI: Iraizoz – Amorebieta – J. Martinez – Iraola – Aurtenetxe – Iturraspe – Perez – Muniain – De Marcos – Susaeta – Toquero
Carlos Gurpegi will be unavailable through injury. Meanwhile Llorente and Ander are still in doubt after playing with injuries against Schalke.
|Ath. Bilbao||2 – 2||FC Barcelona|
Last time FC Barcelona faced Athletic Bilbao was way back on November 6, 2011. Barcelona nicked the draw after Messi equalized in the 90th minute. Amorebieta was given marching orders near the end as he committed too many persistent foulings.
Fabregas will use this match to get his playmaking skills back and most of Barcelona’s build up will originate from him. Barca should expect lots of time on the ball given that Bilbao’s stamina wanes as time passes. Llorente’s absence will prove detrimental to Bilbao’s style of play and thus they will not succeed much in maintaining possession.
FC Barcelona 3 – 1 Athletic Bilbao