Three talking points ahead of Athletic Club vs Barcelona
Xavi Hernandez takes on former Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Club on Sunday night in La Liga’s premier clash of Matchday 25. At San Mames, the Catalans will be under pressure to take three points after Real Madrid’s win over Espanyol reduced their lead to six points.
Athletic Club, the hosts on the night, currently sit ninth on the league table. Yet, like Xavi said in his pre-match press conference, their place on the standings is harsh on the Basque side’s quality and performances.
The Bilbao-based side have won nine of their 24 league games so far this season, scoring 33 goals and conceding 26 in the process. Expect an end-to-end and open game on Sunday, for neither side believes in the ideology of defending deep.
Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of Athletic Club de Bilbao vs Barcelona.
1. Additions to the squad
Suspensions on both the bench and the field handicapped Barcelona in their previous clash league game. Hosting Valencia at Spotify Camp Nou, the Catalans were without Xavi Hernandez on the touchline and Gavi on the pitch.
The suspensions came as an added disadvantage given that Barça were already missing Robert Lewandowski, Pedri Gonzalez and Ousmane Dembele. One week later, they see happier times.
Gavi is back in the squad travelling to San Mames having served his one-game ban. Robert Lewandowski has also been given the medical green light and will almost certainly make a return to the starting lineup.
Further, Xavi will return on the pitchside for the trip to San Mames, taking over from his brother Oscar Hernandez. Needless to say, the situation ahead of the tough game is significantly brighter than it was a week ago.
With Gavi and Lewandowski expected to be starting on the left-wing and centre-forward positions respectively, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati are both expected to drop to the bench. Raphinha will likely be the third player in attack, starting down the right flank.
Pedri’s exclusion from the squad implies another start for the Sergio Busquets, Franck Kessie, and Frenkie de Jong midfield. Thus, Barcelona will likely revert to the four-midfielder system that has worked so well for them this season.
2. Ronald Araujo’s price to pay
When Jules Kounde’s erroneous header fell in Hugo Duro’s path, Ronald Araujo had to make a split-second decision. The Uruguayan opted to make a professional last-man foul to stop Valencia’s best chance of the game and was sent off as a result.
His sacrifice might well be the reason Barcelona walked away with three points on the day. However, he must pay the price with ninety minutes on the sidelines and will be unavailable for the team’s clash at San Mames.
Ernesto Valverde’s side boast of two of La Liga’s trickiest forwards in Inaki Williams and Nico Williams. With Araujo unavailable, Xavi thus has important decisions to take over the defensive setup.
Alejandro Balde and Jules Kounde are likely to continue as the full-backs on the night so as to preserve the working system. Andreas Christensen is thus expected to start alongside Marcos Alonso in central defence, especially in light of the Spaniard’s excellent showing in the recent Clasico.
Barcelona’s Uruguayan warrior will be back in action for the weekend’s clash against Real Madrid. Yet, his influence on the team is such that his absence for even ninety minutes is a scary proposition.
3. One final stiff challenge away from home
Sunday night sees Barcelona participate in their 25th league game of the season. Only 13 games remain after the faceoff at San Mames, and a closer look at the fixture list provides an interesting revelation.
La Liga is notoriously known for a set of away grounds that are hellish to play at. Benito Villamarin, Santiago Bernabeu, Civitas Metropolitano, La Ceramica, Reale Arena, El Sadar, San Mames, and Ramon Sanchez Pijzuan are the stadiums usually placed on the aforementioned list.
So far this season, Barcelona have already completed their away games at all the above grounds with the sole exception of San Mames. The Catalans do indeed face Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Real Betis, Osasuna, and Real Sociedad later this term, but all at Spotify Camp Nou.
In that sense, Sunday night’s clash would be the final big test on the road for Xavi’s men. The Azulgranas boast of a special record away from home under the club legend, and a win against Athletic Club would sit prettily on that front.
Barcelona have failed to win on their last two trips to San Mames. They only managed a tame 1-1 draw in La Liga last season and fell to a painful extra-time defeat to Athletic Club in the Copa del Rey five months later.
When the two teams met earlier this season, an Ousmane Dembele masterclass helped Barcelona decimate their opposition by four goals. The Frenchman finished the night with a goal and three assists. Given that Dembele is unavailable for the weekend’s clash, it remains to be seen how the visitors fare in his absence.