On the back of a relatively disappointing first half of the season, Barcelona will seek to write a new chapter in their turbulent campaign as they host Athletic Club Bilbao in the Camp Nou.
Date and Kickoff Time: 31st January 2021; 21:00 CET
Stadium: Camp Nou
Competition: La Liga Santander, Gameweek 21
Referee: Antonio Mateu
The last time Fútbol Club Barcelona and Athletic Club Bilbao faced off, Ronald Koeman’s side gave away a one-goal lead in the final minute of normal time only to concede the killer blow early into extra time through a sumptuous strike from Iñaki Williams. In the Spanish Super Cup Final, no less.
The game was distasteful in every sense of the word. The Basque side were rather passive in their style of play and compounded their deplorable football with time-wasting tactics, and such was the build-up in frustration that Lionel Messi, of all people, snapped and received the first red card in his career for the iconic Garnet and Blue of Barcelona.
Heading into tomorrow night’s game, both sides find themselves in somewhat similar circumstances. Barcelona claim to be fighting for the league, however, rather than depend solely on what they themselves can do, they’ll be heavily reliant on the rest of their rivals to aid them in cutting the gap down to something more reasonable to chase.
That said, Real Madrid’s game loss to Levante away from home brings forth a new perspective about this game where the Blaugranas have the chance to go second in the league. As things stand, though, Atletico are 10 points ahead of the Blaugrana, and this too with a game in hand.
Their hopes for silverware come season’s end are still alive, as following their 1-2 away victory over Rayo Vallecano, the Garnet and Blue remain in contention for the Copa Del Rey.
Athletic meanwhile will be heading into this game feeling by far the more enthusiastic of the two. Ever since their defeat to Barcelona in the reverse league fixture, Athletic haven’t been anywhere near the same team. They conquered both Clasico rivals in the span of a week to win the Spanish Supercup, overcame Ibiza en route to their trouncing of Granada by a whopping five goals to one in La Liga, and followed that up with a dominant away victory over Alcoyano in the Copa Del Rey.
What to expect from Barcelona?
For all their flaws, Barcelona remain still La Liga’s highest-scoring side, and with the division’s most expected goals, owing to their unmatchable creativity. Sadly, as was the case in midweek, their end product has been anything but convincing. The Catalans on a phenomenal run of form of late, especially given the fact that they haven’t been on home soil for the better part of the last one and a half months. They currently find themselves on a run of five consecutive away victories, something that hadn’t been seen since the ever nostalgic Luis Enriqué era.
In a majority of these clashes, the Garnet and Blue deployed 4-3-3 and have done so to great effect. This setup has allowed the attention to be taken away from Lionel Messi and passed it down to the midfield to the fans’ content. It is in this zone that Barcelona found its identity, and thanks to Ronald Koeman’s tactical ingenuity of late, all three starters have been excellent.
Ever since joining Athletic Club as a manager, Marcelino García has been known to deploy only one formation; the 4-4-2. Given the opposition’s tactical shape, the Blaugrana are most likely to deploy a 4-3-3 as it systematically acts as the best counter to what will be a rigid backline from their visitors tomorrow night.
Starting with the goal, Marc André Ter Stegen almost certainly takes back his spot from Neto Murara, having sat out the tie in midweek in the Copa Del Rey.
Now slowly evolving into a household name, Ronald Araújo is the first definite pick for the centre-back position. His last eleven successive games have seen rack up some jaw-dropping displays, and such is his equanimity and positional dexterity in the role that he is yet to be dribbled past in that period. The second spot is open for contention between the two French internationals. Given the trust Koeman places in him, Lenglet is expected to get the nod over his compatriot Samuel Umtiti.
Jordi Alba taking over from Junior Firpo in the left-back role following yet another worrisome game from the Hispano-Dominican. Having endured a disciplined but quiet evening, Oscar Mingueza will maintain his spot as Barça’s right-back, but we might see Sergi Roberto come on after two months on the sidelines in case the tide turns in favour of the opponent.
The midfield should ideally carry the same faces as it did against Eibar not too long ago, with Miralem Pjanić taking over from the suspended Sergio Busquets in his role as the positional pivot, and Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona’s most talked about player in recent weeks, maintaining his more adventurous role in the side. December’s Player of the month Pedri should ideally start in the central attacking midfield, following yet another impressive cameo appearance against Rayo Vallecano in the King’s Cup.
Given the game’s objective difficulty, Ronald Koeman is likely to start an attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and one of Ousmane Dembélé or Francisco Trincão. The Portuguese had arguably his best performance in a Barça shirt, however, even after that, it is unsure whether or not Koeman is willing on gambling on him in this game.
What to expect from Athletic Club?
Sitting mid-table, with 24 points from a potential fifty-eight, nine defeats, three draws and seven victories, Athletic are currently on a roll.
Over the course of the past month they have played three league games, emerging victorious against Elche upon Gaizka Garitano’s sacking, losing against Barcelona then, in between the Spanish Supercup and their Copa Del Rey victory, they made a mockery out of Granada, beating them 5-1 in a dominant display at the glorious San Mames.
As has been said, the Basque giants mainly line up in Marcelino’s iconic 4-4-2. They typically don’t hold that high a regard in keeping possession, as they have average ball retention at 44% per match since the ex-Valencia boss’s appointment, and such is exemplified by their Copa Del Rey tie against Ibiza FC, where despite being the bigger team, they had just 42% of the ball.
In attacking phases, they generally attack on the left side, with between 40 and 50% of their attacks being generated from that flank. For this, they have Yuri Berchiche providing width and Iker Muniain to thank for taking up most of the creative responsibilities from the wider areas.
In addition to this, they are open to sitting deep in defence and punishing the opposition via a counter-attack, taking full advantage of the dexterity in Muniain and the rest of his team’s crossing, which Barça know all too well about.
Player to Watch
In a team in resurgence, Iker Muniain stands out above the rest. Ever since Marcelino’s takeover from Garitano, he looks a completely different player. His crossing was a nightmare against Barcelona as recently as two weeks ago, with him bagging an assist and putting to show just how lethal his crossing ability is.
Athletic look like an all-round team at the moment, however shutting him down will go a long way in securing the three points. He’ll surely be inspired by his game against Granada, arguably his best in a red and white shirt.
Previous games: WWWLW
Real Sociedad (2) 1-1 (3) Barcelona | Supercopa España
Athletic Club 3-2 Barcelona | Supercopa España
Cornellá 0-2 Barcelona | Copa Del Rey
Elche 0-2 Barcelona | La Liga
Rayo Vallecano 1-2 Barcelona |Copa Del Rey
Position in La Liga
37 points in 19 games
11 wins, 4 draws and 4 losses
39 Goals Scored, 17 Goals Conceded
+22 Goal Difference
Previous games: WWWWW
Athletic Club 2-1 Real Madrid | Supercopa España
Athletic Club 3-2 Barcelona | Supercopa España
Ibiza 1-2 Athletic Club | Copa Del Rey
Athletic Club 5-1 Granada | La Liga
Alcoyano 1-2 Athletic Club | Copa Del Rey
Position in La Liga
24 points in 19 games
7 win, 3 draws, 9 losses
26 goals scored, 23 goals conceded
3 goal difference
Head to head record
Athletic Club 3-2 Barcelona | Supercopa España 2021
Athletic Club 2-3 Barcelona | La Liga 2020/21
Barcelona 2-1 Athletic Club | La Liga 2019/20
Athletic Club 1-0 Barcelona | Copa Del Rey 2019/20
Athletic Club 1-0 Barcelona | La Liga 2019/20
- Barcelona are on a 9 game unbeaten run in La Liga.
- Barcelona have not scored more than 3 goals against Athletic since 2015/16 (6-0).
- Athletic Club have not won away from home in their last 7 outings in La Liga.
- Lionel Messi is playing his first La Liga game since the ban against Bilbao in the Supercup final.
Injured: Gerard Pique (knee), Ansu Fati (knee), Sergi Roberto (hamstring), Philippe Coutinho (knee)
Suspended: Sergio Busquets
Mingueza · Araújo · Lenglet · Alba
de Jong · Pjanić · Pedri
Dembélé · Messi · Griezmann
Coach: Ronald Koeman
Injury: Peru Nolaskoain
Doubtful: Íñigo Martínez, Mikel Balenziaga
Capa · Álvarez · Núñez · Berchiche
De Marcos · Vencedor · García · Muniain
Williams · García
Coach: Marcelino García Toral
Ties between these two often don’t end with a multitude of goals, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect an avalanche of them. Athletic will do their best to be rigid defensively and punish Barça through counters, however, given Mingueza’s presence in an in-game back three, this could be mitigated. Messi is out for blood, De Jong is having the time of his life and so too Barça as a whole. Should everything go according to plan, then this might easily be a comfortable win.
Barça Universal Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Athletic Club