Sunday, 20 February 2011
Match Preview: Barcelona v Athletic Bilbao
Crisis, tiredness, defeat, pressure; not words Pep Guardiola has become accustomed to hearing in his time as Barcelona manager but ones he has had to rebut in the past week.
A respectable draw away from home (whilst resting some key players) followed by a 2-1 defeat on the road in the last-16 of the Champions League may not be a crisis for most, if any, other clubs in the world right now.
But for Barcelona – Guardiola’s Barcelona in particular – things are different.
With all the superlatives, eulogies and praise also comes the criticism and questioning when the cruise through the season takes the odd bump in what has been to this point a road so smooth that the tarmac should have its own Nivea advert. And so it is that Barcelona must prove the doubters wrong again.
The pressure continues to be imposed by Real Madrid who disposed of Levante 2-0 on Saturday night to cut the gap at the top to two points.
Guardiola is expected to release his full artillery to ease the strain of two games without a win. The 11 that started against Arsenal expected to do so again here, David Villa the only doubt after missing training in the week.
However, even a full strength Barca may find it hard to get back on track against a young side with confidence and ambition very much on the up.
Before Monday night’s disappointing 1-0 defeat to Mallorca, Athletic had strung together four consecutive victories in the league, moving them up to fifth position. And with Villarreal struggling in recent weeks the Basque side still harbour hopes of Champions League qualification for next season.
The question for coach, Jaoquin Caparrós, will be whether to retain Gaizka Toquero alongside Fernando Llorente in attack or opt for an extra midfield player to try and disrupt Barcelona’s rythym. Caparrós has outlined his intention to go with the former option which is surprising given his success in using a 4-5-1 in the 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp in the Copa Del Rey in January.
A run out at the Nou Camp also gives the hugely impressive Iker Muniain the chance to showcase his skills on the big stage.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Maxwell, Abidal, Pique, Alves; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro
Athletic Bilbao (4-4-2): Iraizoz; Koikili, Ekiza, Jose, Iraola; Muniain, Martinez, Jose, Lopez; Toquero, Llorente