League leaders Barcelona will play host to 14th-place Athletic Bilbao Saturday in La Liga action. While the Catalans are yet to lose in the domestic league, the Basque side has had a roller coaster start to the season.
Bilbao are fresh off of a humiliating 5-1 defeat to Real Madrid (via Goal). With a chance to bounce back, the Basques were only able to draw against Deportivo last weekend (via Goal). Just when the season looked to be improving, Los Blancos sent Bilbao back to earth.
On the other hand, Barcelona has been on a tear as of late. They started their season off with shaky play, yet still managed results. And now it appears that the Catalans are finally hitting their stride.
Many questions will be asked in this game, such as: Can Bilbao rescue their season with a huge win? Will Barcelona continue their unbeaten streak? There are many factors that play into this match.
Here is what to watch for during Saturday's Barcelona vs. Bilbao action.
Fernando Llorente was once the face of Athletic Bilbao. Now he has become nothing more but a benched player. He was lucky enough to get his first start of the season last week against Deportivo, when he showed his former class (via Goal).
For a club like Bilbao, their best players must be treated like kings. Their Basque-only policy makes star players come few and far between, but Llorente has been one of those stars in recent seasons.
Though he only recently got his first start, this has to be a sign from coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Perhaps Bielsa realizes that his best chance lies with Llorene. And with such a daunting task ahead of Bilbao, Llorente is a necessity in the starting lineup.
Fernando Llorente will start against Barcelona, as he is really the club's best chance to secure a win. Iker Muniain has been struggling this season, and Aduriz has not been able to perform in big games.
If Llorente does not start, it will be a sign from the club that they do not expect to achieve much against Barcelona.
David Villa is a man on a mission. Not only did he score two great goals against Alaves midweek, but he also played his first full game since returning from his broken leg (via Goal).
There is no denying that Villa is looking to take his starting spot back. After the performance he put in against Alaves, coach Tito Vilanova has no choice but to play the Spanish international.
ESPN recently informed the world of Vilanova's delight in the return of David Villa. It is evident that the Blaugrana coach has been wanting Villa to become 100 percent.
Now that El Guaje has fulfilled his comeback, it is up to Vilanova to give Villa his rightful starting position.
If Villa does not start, it would be a huge blow to the Spaniard's confidence. He deserves his role back and has much more to offer Barcelona at this point than any other winger on the squad.
The world's greatest player, Lionel Messi, sits only three goals behind Gerd Muller for most goals scored in a calendar year (via FIFA). Four goals would see Messi break the record and make it his own.
In front of a packed Camp Nou, Messi may finally break the record against Athletic Bilbao.
Lionel Messi has scored four straight braces due to his unbelievable form as of late. This form will no doubt bring history for the Argentine. But I expect Messi to make history in a historic way.
How else to break a goal-scoring record than scoring four goals in one game? Messi is no stranger to big performances. Will the struggling Bilbao will be yet another victim to Messi's brilliance?
Bilbao will certainly not look to park the bus in defense because the Basque side has too much pride to settle for that. The open play will lead to Messi making history, and I would not be surprised if the Argentine has three goals before halftime.
Barcelona currently leads the table with a total of 37 points. Atletico Madrid trail by three points, while rivals Real Madrid trail by 11 points.
Barcelona will arguably wrap up the league with a win against Bilbao. As the football gods have planned it, the Madrid derby takes place right after the end of the game at the Camp Nou.
Needing only extend their lead by a little, Barcelona will have the trophy in its firm grasp.
The Catalan club are in a win-win position with the Madrid derby. If Real Madrid win, Atletico will fall six points behind Barcelona.
If Atletico secures a win, bitter rivals Real Madrid will be an astounding 14 points behind Barcelona. However, the best outcome for La Blaugrana would be a draw in Madrid.
A draw would see both Madrid clubs fall two points further behind the leaders. Though there are plenty of games left to be played, extending the lead will result in La Liga already being decided.
But, I must stress that Barcelona has to win to gain the treat of extending their lead no matter what the outcome is in Madrid. This will push Barcelona as hard as they have been pushed all season.
With all these factors, I already feel bad that Bilbao have to face Barcelona at this point.
With a historic performance by Lionel Messi and a chance to finish off the league, Barcelona will beat Athletic Bilbao. I predict a score of 5-1. This will be a hard loss for Bilbao only two weeks after losing to Real Madrid by the same scoreline.
Even so, the Basque club will fight with pride against Barcelona.
The Catalan giants often look their worst when a team decides to come right at them. Expect nothing less than full effort from Bilbao.
However, Bilbao will be lucky to score even one goal in this game. As predicted, Messi will net four goals. But, also expect David Villa to add his name on the scoresheet.
Messi and Villa need as much time together as possible to return to the days of the glorious pairing. With the pair scoring, all the rumors of tension will be silenced (via ESPN).
Tune in Saturday to see Barcelona not only take a commanding lead over the league, but to also see an impossible record be broken by the greatest player in history.
Now to you, the readers. Will Barcelona pull off a needed win against Bilbao? Is Messi finally going to break the record? Don't forget to comment!