Pep Guardiola has named all 19 available first team players plus Isaac Cuenca for the trip to Bilbao to take on Athletic tomorrow evening (kick off 8pm local time). Little by little our injury list is getting shorter and now we have only the long-term injury to Ibi Afellay and the much shorter term problem with Pedro to worry about. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta have been rested for the last couple of games but both are reportedly back to 100% which gives Guardiola plenty of options to choose from.
If he looks back at last season’s 1-3 victory at San Mames he will remember the importance of players such as Sergio Busquets and Seydou Keita who both capped fine performances with goals that day. We should remember that we were assisted by the first half sending off of Fernando Amorebieta and it will be interesting to see if San Mames continues with its peculiar habit of booing Iniesta whose only crime was being on the receiving end of Amorebieta’s boot (or could it be that he is booed by some Basques for scoring Spain’s world cup winner?).
Victories at San Mames are by no means easy to come by. In 80 league visits to Bilbao we have only managed 22 wins. However, we are unbeaten there since 2006 with three wins and two draws in our last five visits. Athletic come into the game in an excellent moment of form and they are currently unbeaten in nine matches. They put in a fine performance in their last home game beating Atletico Madrid 3-0, we all know the talent of Fernando Llorente and Javi Martinez but they are always producing new prospects and I particularly like Markel Susaeta and the 18-year-old Iker Muniain. We might hope that Athletic will notice the effort of beating Salzburg 0-1 in the Europa League on Thursday, but with the home crowd behind them it seems unlikely that they will feel the lack of rest.
One of the characteristics of the season so far is the difficulty in guessing Guardiola’s team selection and tactics. With the fine form being shown by Isaac Cuenca there is every reason to expect him to continue in the team, however, we now have the excellent news of Alexis’s recovery and he will be in contention also for a place in the front line along with Messi, Villa, Fabregas, Iniesta or Adriano. Cesc and Iniesta could of course be preferred in midfield but they face competition from Xavi, Thiago, Busquets and Keita for a place in the three- or four-man midfield. Dani Alves seems sure to start but who will accompany him in the three- or four-man defence? Given the type of physical game we often face in Bilbao we might expect to see players like Piqué and Puyol preferred for their strength in the air while we might expect to see Keita in midfield say rather than a player like Thiago.
It will no doubt be a tough test for us and we know it is not a good time to be dropping points given Madrid’s slender advantage over us at the top of the table. I think it’s going to be one of those tense nail-biting games where we really have to work for the three points, but I feel the team is coming back to a higher level than we saw a couple of weeks ago and if the luck doesn’t go horribly against us we will be good enough for victory.
Barça’s twenty-man squad for the game: Valdés, Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol, Fontás, Abidal, Maxwell, Adriano, Busquets, Keita, Xavi, Thiago, Fabregas, Iniesta, Cuenca, Messi, Villa, Alexis.
Possible starting XI (I might as well have a go!): Valdés; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Cuenca, Messi, Villa.
My prediction: Athletic 1 Barça 2