FC Barcelona have a chance to further the gap with both teams from Madrid tonight as Bilbao will be visiting Camp Nou for the first time this season. What can we expect from the encounter? Find out more after the jump.
The importance of principle
Tito Vilanova and FC Barcelona received a lot of accolades recently. Relentlessly pursuing and choosing to play a distinct footballing style, FC Barcelona reached an important milestone last week when they completed the match with eleven players that have been “sons of the system” in their journey to become professional football players. Amidst all the money and temptation for instant success, this achievement is laudable especially if we try and look around for comparison.
Athletic Bilbao played brave and entertaining football last season under Bielsa. As a team who are mainly previously known for their physical play, mentioned a couple of times as the Stoke of Spain, their performance last season opened the door for a lot of admirers. Sadly, even though they participated in two finals they finished the season without winning anything. Bielsa, ever the controversial figure, was reported to give a very harsh team talk at the end of the finals.
As the architect of change in Bilbao, it was surely saddening to see Bielsa unsure with his own project even near the end of last season. Even more to see the project unravel before our very eyes. Was the philosophy wrong? Did his elaborate trainings finally take their toll on the players? Or was it the principle to only sign Basque players that is holding the team back? Whatever it is, their two star players wanted out. Javi Martinez has signed for Bayern München meanwhile Fernando Llorente has voiced his desire to leave which relegated him to a role of bench warmer at the beginning of the current season.
Barcelona has gone through similar phase of identity crisis. After all, the philosophy will only be acknowledged when they are successful. Van Gaal was being laughed at when he said that Barcelona can one day win the European Cup using only La Masia players. Why was he laughed at? Because Barcelona at that time wasn’t successful in the Champions League.
Either from a desperate need or finally coming to his senses, Bielsa started using Llorente again this past week. Although employed to a good effect in the Europa League, he still looked a shadow of his former self playing against Deportivo or Madrid. He didn’t finish a lot of clear chances but has shown improvement. Llorente was a key person for his excellent target man ability that enables the team to use him as a focal point. In his absence, Bielsa is forced to use 4-2-3-1 with Aduriz up top and Muniesa just behind him.
So far it brought Bilbao to 14th place so they need to rekindle their competitiveness.
Return to 4-3-3
Bielsa has been using the 4-2-3-1 with Aduriz in the striker position. While looking the safer option in defense compared to 4-3-3, Bilbao wasn’t very successful in imposing their possession game that was the reason for their success last season. Inability to create chances seems to be the main problem so far this season, but in spite of everything Bielsa’s team look very close to recapturing their form last season with 4-3-3.
MVP once again
With Villa scoring against Alaves in midweek, Tito looks set to once again use Messi Villa Pedro tonight. Last week Pedro was excellent in transition and enabled a lot of Barcelona’s attacks. Iniesta was used at the left flank and gave a genius performance in the second half with one goal and three assists. But that was against Levante, a team who is content to sit back and attack from the counter.
With Bilbao using 4-3-3, the match will be more open as both teams compete for superiority in midfield. Expect Cesc to start the game from the bench one more time as Tito will go for the classic Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta midfield.
Puyol and Pique should start once again, Montoya and Alba in the fullback position. This will be a very interesting game to watch.
Pique and Puyol are both back in the squad. Barça will be missing Alves, Alexis, and Marc Bartra although the latter two have started training separate from the team. Muniesa and Cuenca are still recovering from their surgeries, meanwhile Thiago is slowly picking up match minutes.
Predicted Starting XI: Valdés; Pique, Puyol, Montoya, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Villa, Messi
Aduriz is back from his suspension but I expect Llorente to lead the team once again. No other injury problem is reported from Bilbao.
Predicted Starting XI: Iraizoz; Amorebieta, Gurpegi, Iraola, Aurtenetxe; Ander, Iturraspe, de Marcos; Susaeta, Muniain, Llorente
FC Barcelona 4 – 1 Athletic Bilbao
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