Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao Preview
Camp Nou, Barcelona
MATCH IN A SENTENCE: Barcelona have history on their minds as they prepare to host Athletic Bilbao, who haven’t won against the Catalan giants in more than six years.
BREAKDOWN: With title rivals Atletico and Real Madrid going head-to-head in the Spanish capital, Barcelona welcome Athletic Bilbao to Camp Nou for a rematch of last spring’s Copa del Rey final, in which the Catalans prevailed 3-0.
Currently perched atop the Primera Division table with 37 points out of a possible 39 to start the season, Barcelona have already equalled Real Madrid’s record start of 1991-92 and could set a new mark with a win on Saturday. Only a fool would bet against them.
Other than the loss to Celtic at Parkhead in the Champions League, Barcelona have been well near spotless this term, with a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid their only blemish in their league campaign so far. And with Athletic Bilbao winless in their last two Primera Division matches and floundering in 14th spot—just four points above the drop—the Blaugrana are poised to make history.
So, too, is Lionel Messi. Coming into Saturday’s match the Argentine maestro has bagged an astonishing 82 goals in the calendar year—just three shy of Gerd Muller’s 40-year-old mark. It’s only a matter of time before the record falls, and while Saturday might be a match too soon Messi does have encounters with Benfica and Real Betis coming up in early December.
Athletic, for their part, are hoping Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Hapoel Kirya in Tel Aviv will be a springboard to an improved run of form. Fernando Llorents, whose head has been elsewhere as he contemplates a transfer, scored in the match, and a few more scoring performances from him would only help the Basque side in their quest to work their way up the table.
Llorente has scored just once in La Liga this season, although his goals have been replaced by veteran marksman Aritz Aduriz, who was acquired from Valencia in the summer.
ESSENTIALS: Barcelona left-back Adriano is suffering from a virus and will be left out of Saturday’s squad, as will defender Eric Abidal and right-back Dani Alves—both of whom are injured. Forward Alexis Sanchez is also sidelined, although David Villa’s rich vein of form makes the Chilean’s absence rather more bearable.
Athletic will be without defender Iraolo and midfielder Ruiz de Galarreta, Inigo Perez and Gurpegi.
KEY BATTLE: With Barcelona’s Martin Montoya deputising for the injured Dani Alves, Athletic Bilbao forward Iker Muniain may find a bit more space than usual on his side’s left attacking flank. Muniain, 19 and also a rumoured transfer target of several big, European clubs, will frequently exchange positions with Ibai Gomez.
FORMATIONS: Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova will deploy his usual, flexible 4-3-3 formation with Pedro, Messi and Vila comprising the forward line. Athletic Bilbao boss Marcelo Bielso will also go 4-3-3 and will have Markel Susaeta, Aduriz and Gomez up top.
BETLINE: Barcelona 1/11; Draw 9/1; Athletic Bilbao 20/1. Athletic Bilbao haven’t beaten Barcelona since May 2006.