A trip to the Basque country is tough at the best of times, but heading to the San Mamés without Lionel Messi for their third game in seven days makes this Barca’s biggest test of the season so far.
Athletic Bilbao have begun the season in impressive fashion, taking seven points from their first four games, including a noteworthy 3-0 victory over Mallorca in midweek. Bilbao are a hard-working and technically gifted group of players, with their standout talent being star striker Fernando Llorente. Surprisingly enough, Llorente didn’t score in the victory over Mallorca, but the World Cup winner scored in their first three league games and has proven himself to be one of the best strikers in La Liga over the past two seasons.
Barca was less than impressive in midweek as they struggled to a 1-0 victory at home to Sporting Gijon, with David Villa scoring the only goal. The three points were one of the few positives to come out of Wednesday night’s game, although Guardiola was also able to rest a couple of his regular starters in midweek. This may be a help with games coming thick and fast at this point of the season, with Barca away in Russia to face Rubin Kazan in midweek followed by Mallorca at home next weekend.
Barca’s squad is not the biggest, but they will almost certainly play their strongest available XI against a tricky Bilbao side, especially as the champions find themselves behind both Valencia and Real Madrid at this point. This will mean Gerard Pique and Pedro returning to the side, with Gabi Milito and Bojan the most likely to miss out.
Pique and Carles Puyol will have their work cut out at San Mamés, particularly with the aerial threat posed by Llorente, a threat Barca have often seemed vulnerable to in previous encounters. At the other end, a likely front three of Pedro, Villa and Andres Iniesta are as far from an aerial threat as one can imagine, but on the floor each of the trio has the potential to wreak havoc. Barca will be hoping to score the first goal and control possession as they usually do, but should they fall behind, particularly in such hostile surroundings, it will be a real test of character for the players.
Villa was vocal in midweek about Barcelona’s superiority over Madrid and his desire to win ‘multiple trophies’ with Barca this season, so fans will be hoping that the team’s main goal threat backs up his talk with a performance in Bilbao. As evidenced in midweek when he scored the only goal of the game, Villa shouldered a lot of the attacking burden while Messi is out injured, but the forward will likely relish the opportunity to live up to his billing as one of the world’s top goalscorers.
This really is a game which could go either way, with much resting on the first goal. Barca will rightly start as favourites, but Bilbao are no pushovers and are capable of causing problems throughout. Whatever happens, we can almost certainly expect a pulsating encounter, as you should any time the pride of the Basque country face off against the pride of Catalunya.