FC Barcelona face two crucial home games in the next four games where only two victories will suffice. On Tuesday the mighty AC Milan come to Camp Nou for the return leg of the Champions League quarter final, but first Barça must defeat Athletic Club in La Liga tomorrow night (Saturday 10pm local time) to keep up the pressure on leaders Real Madrid.
Barça were compelled to stay another day in Milan after Wednesday’s 0-0 draw. It was quite tempting to start a rumour that the only reason for the extra day was that Pep Guardiola wanted to go shopping, but the real cause, of course, was the general strike here in Spain. The team trained yesterday morning at Inter’s training ground and then spent the afternoon site-seeing and, well yes, shopping. The group arrived back in Barcelona this morning and the players went through a light training session at Camp Nou.
There were no obvious injuries from the game at the San Siro but Guardiola will no doubt make some changes to try to keep us as fresh as possible. Thiago, Pedro, Cesc and Cuenca could all be recalled to the starting XI but Adriano won’t quite be ready in time and will be kept in reserve for Tuesday. The most likely players to get a rest are probably Xavi and Iniesta, though Guardiola said in this lunchtime’s press conference that he will put out the best team to beat Athletic, so we shall see.
The first eight questions of that press conference were about Athletic and their innovative coach Marcelo Bielsa. It is well known that Guardiola is an admirer of the Argentinian who has turned Athletic into one of the most attractive sides to watch in Europe. Our opponents in this season’s Copa del Rey final in May, Athletic have saved their best performances for the Europa League where earlier this month they knocked out the great Manchester United and last night they earned a 2-4 victory away to Raul’s Schalke 04 in the quarter-final first leg.
The fact that Athletic played such a hard fought match in Germany just 48 hours before tomorrow’s clash is obviously a handicap for them. Bielsa likes to play with an established first XI every week but he is sure to make some changes to the usual team so we may see players like San Jose, Iñigo Perez, Iñigo Lopez and Ibai Gomez in place of the better players such as Javi Martinez, Herrera, De Marcos and Llorente. A run of four league games without a win in recent weeks has seen Athletic slip to eleventh place in La Liga which would suggest their cup exploits are taking their toll. This should of course give Barça a slight advantage though as Guardiola said, it is best for Barça not to think about any possible tiredness on Athletic’s part as we could very easily be punished if we do.
With Guardiola and Bielsa in charge of the teams it is bound to be an interesting match as both teams will go out to attack. It will be important to get a good start, if we can manage to get two goals in front then we may be allowed to reserve some energy for Milan, however, if we allow Athletic to stay in the game I am sure they will fight us for the 90 minutes. We need to find the right intensity and surprise them early on and we should then go on to a comfortable victory.
Possible starting XI: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Puyol; Keita, Thiago, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Cuenca.
My prediction: Barça 3 Athletic 0