The long international break has finally reached its culmination and club football is back upon us. La Liga enters its tenth match day this week, with Barcelona set to host Athletic Club in a high-voltage clash.
Ernesto Valverde’s side enter the big game not too far behind the Blaugranas on the league standings. Nine games in, they sit in fifth place with five wins and two draws to their name.
Their more immediate form, however, is not as impressive. Athletic Club have won just one of their last three games and even went on to lose 3-0 to Real Sociedad in the recent Basque derby.
Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of Barcelona vs Athletic Club.
Limitations in defence
Barcelona and defensive shortcomings go back a long way. The Catalans have struggled with an understaffed defence for years now, and it was only last year that they finally appeared to get a grip on the position.
Despite having substantial depth in central defence now, Barcelona still run into the occasional run of games with a problematic back-line. Last season, it even cost them their place in the UEFA Champions League knockouts.
As the team returns to action from the international break, Xavi Hernandez faces a dilemma in defence, albeit not as severe as one would expect.
The Blaugranas’ best defender this season, Jules Kounde, is ruled out on the night through injury. Andreas Christensen and Ronald Araujo would thus arrive in the fixture as the best-placed starting duo.
It is at this juncture that Xavi will find himself in a dilemma. The Uruguayan international returned to training just yesterday after a long trip from America, and it is unclear if the manager should start him against Athletic Club or look towards Inigo Martinez as an option.
How much to risk?
Sticking on the topic of treading a fine line, Xavi has multiple sensitive decisions to take ahead of kickoff against the Basque opposition.
For starters, Araujo is not the only player with weary legs after a long journey. Ilkay Gundogan and Marc-Andre ter Stegen played their friendlies for Germany in the USA over the past week and thus sailed on the same boat.
The goalkeeper should be able to start tomorrow without much worry. Yet, there is significant support for the idea of resting Gundogan and Araujo on the night to keep them fresh.
If indeed the German international starts on the bench, one would expect Fermin Lopez to get the start alongside Gavi and Oriol Romeu.
Two other players in delicate situations are Alejandro Balde and Lamine Yamal. Both Spanish prodigies are recovering from mild niggles, and while Xavi insists that they are fit to play, it remains to be seen how much the manager is put on the line.
It would be advisable for the Spanish tactician to start the duo on the bench and gradually phase them in on the night to prevent relapses. After all, El Clasico is just around the corner and both academy graduates will play a key role on the night.
The No. 9 problem
Barcelona boast of serious depth across the park in their squad. From the goalkeeper position to the wingers out wide, the Catalans always have a backup option in place.
The one department lacking a direct replacement for the regular starting name is the centre-forward department. Robert Lewandowski is the sole contender for the starting spot as the No. 9, for the club, has no player of a similar profile.
The Polish star’s injury earlier this month, thus, left the manager in a difficult spot. He called on Ferran Torres to complete the night against Porto as the centre-forward, and while he did score the winner, it was clear that the team lacked the vicious finisher.
The same theme continued against Granada in the succeeding La Liga fixture, for the Blaugranas could not find a winner from their 22 shots on goal. Despite having four big chances on the night, they ended up with just one point to show.
It thus remains to be seen how the manager will cover for Lewandowski’s absence against Athletic Club on Sunday. Ferran Torres would be the obvious choice to start in his place, but it is clear that a tactical change is needed as well.