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Three talking points ahead of Athletic Club vs Barcelona | La Liga GW 27

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Photo by CARLO HERMANN/AFP via Getty Images

Ernesto Valverde was one of the most criticised Barcelona managers in recent times, especially after the team’s failures against AS Roma and Liverpool. It is only now, over five years later, that people are beginning to understand the Spanish tactician’s value.

Valverde at Barcelona was two wins away from a historic treble and etching his name in gold in the club’s history. As it so happens in Catalonia, he was instead villainised and said to be the reason behind the team’s UCL failures.

Now, he has built a monstrous team once again, this time at Athletic Club. The Basque side, under his tutelage, are fifth in La Liga and eyeing a UCL spot and also in the finals of the Copa del Rey after beating Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

On Sunday night, they play host to Barcelona at San Mames in what will be a repeat of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal. Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of the unforgiving clash.

Scars don’t fade

It has been less than 45 days since Athletic Club and Barcelona last locked horns. The two Spanish sides have often set the park on fire whenever pitted against each other in recent years, and the game on the night was equally captivating.

Athletic got the early lead at San Mames, scoring in the very first minute of the game. A spirited Barcelona, however, fought back through Lamine Yamal and Robert Lewandowski to take the lead at half-time.

What unfolded after the half-time break, however, was heartbreaking for Xavi’s men. The hosts netted an equaliser just four minutes into the second half, setting up a thrilling finish.

Yamal, who was the man of the match till that point, unfortunately missed an open goal with minutes to go on the clock, sending the game to extra-time where Inaki and Nico Williams delivered the final blows to Barcelona’s Copa del Rey campaign. In the process, they delivered scars that just cannot heal.

Heading into the same stadium against the same opposition tomorrow, Barcelona will be put to the test not just on the field but on the mental front. Confronting the scars and overcoming them will account for so much of the result at San Mames, a stadium where they have struggled in recent years.

Pivotal suspension

Nico Williams will miss tomorrow’s game. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Barcelona’s hunt for a new winger last summer took them across the globe. One of their top targets, incidentally was from Spain and the Basque country.

Inaki Williams has tormented Barcelona for years now with Athletic Club, scoring goals first fun against Catalans with his blazing pace. His younger brother Nico Williams, who has recently burst onto the scene, has made himself an even bigger presence and attracted Barcelona’s attention.

When Xavi’s men faced Ernesto Valverde’s side in the Copa del Rey, Nico dished out a performance for the ages. In 120 minutes, he created two big chances, provided six key passes, scored one goal, recorded one assist and completed three dribbles.

It is, thus, safe to say that the 21-year-old is one of Athletic Club’s most important pieces on the field. Unfortunately, the youngster was sent off in the team’s last game and will be unavailable for Sunday’s clash.

Facing one of the best upcoming wingers is a challenge Barcelona’s defence would relish under normal circumstances. Given their current run of form and defensive record, however, it comes as music to the dressing room’s ears.

The real test of defence

While Valverde’s men may well be without their best winger tomorrow night, their forward line is still studded with in-form players. More importantly, they are a dressing room with endless belief and unreal form.

It has been less than two days since the Basque side did away with Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid by a 3-0 scoreline. They have lost just two of their last 23 games across all competitions and are riding high on confidence.

On Sunday night, Xavi’s men will go up against the likes of Gorka Guruzeta, Inaki Williams and Oihan Sancet, all of whom are in tremendous form. Moreover, their counter-attacking style of football with lightning-fast transitions is well-built to counter Barcelona’s high line.

Xavi’s focus tomorrow, thus, must remain on the defensive side of the game. The Blaugranas have improved in that respect in their last two games, even keeping a clean sheet against Getafe. However, the game against Athletic Club will be the true test of their progress and a reality check.

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