After going down to the first defeat of the season at Ajax on Tuesday there will be extra attention to see how Barça respond in the visit to the new San Mames to take on Athletic Club tomorrow evening (Sunday 9 pm). It was the performance in Amsterdam as much as the scoreline that was cause for concern and the defeat has opened the debate over whether this was just a hiccup in an otherwise very positive start to the season or the result of a deeper lying problem.
I have to say that this week I have found the sayings “you can’t win them all” and “you have to lose sometimes” particularly irritating as some form of defence or explanation for Tuesday’s defeat. Sure, sometimes you have no luck in front of goal, sometimes you have a player unluckily sent off or some other big decision goes against you, sometimes the opponents score with their only attack of the game and win against the run of play. All these are acceptable but this was not the case against Ajax.
The fact that Ajax covered five kilometres more than Barça despite being reduced to ten men for the second half clearly demonstrates our failure to match the Dutch team’s intensity. Our superior technical ability may be enough to beat most teams in La Liga but for these away games in the Champions League we clearly need a more vigorous attitude to avoid being overrun. Other teams will have been encouraged by seeing how Barça suffered against Ajax’s high-tempo game and we will have to find more dynamism, especially in midfield, if we are going to avoid similar defeats later in the competition.
Nevertheless, the number of injuries obviously didn’t help and we were particularly hit in the full-back positions. Ajax’s need for the points clearly gave their players more motivation and perhaps our players could be forgiven for holding back a little if the idea was to reserve energy for the future. Tomorrow’s game with Athletic is a perfect opportunity for the players to demonstrate that there is no problem either with their attitude or with their physical fitness.
Tata Martino has Alexis Sanchez back after missing the Ajax game through suspension and Adriano Correia back from injury, but Dani Alves, who was looking likely to return tomorrow, pulled out of training today after 15 minutes after a recurrence of his calf injury and will miss the game and have tests to see the extent of the problem. Carles Puyol will also miss the trip to Bilbao due to a knock on the knee yesterday and due to the absences in defence, Patric Gabarrón, who has travelled to Cordoba for Barça B’s game this afternoon, will tomorrow fly directly to Bilbao to complete Martino’s 18-man list for the game. The 17-year-old Adama Traoré is again included in the squad but there is no place this time for Sergi Gomez and Jean-Marie Dongou.
Marc Bartra and Sergio Busquets seem likely to return to the team against Athletic so we could see a starting XI of Pinto, Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano, Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta, Alexis, Neymar and Pedro. Martino may decide to continue with a below-par Xavi in midfield which would probably see Fabregas moved to the centre of attack with Neymar continuing on the left at the expense of Pedro.
Following a somewhat erratic second season in charge of Athletic Marcelo Bielsa was replaced as first team coach by Ernesto Valverde in June. Valverde returns to Bilbao for his second spell as first-team coach having filled the position between 2003 and 2005, and his start has been very positive. Los Leones still remain unbeaten at their new stadium with five wins and two draws and they currently sit in an impressive fifth position in La Liga with 26 points. For tomorrow’s game Valverde will be without the suspended Aduriz so he will probably choose between the quick 20-year-old Guillermo Fernandez and the more experienced and physically imposing Gaizka Toquero to lead the attack. Valverde’s other main doubt is in central defence where he needs to decide whether to restore Carlos Gurpegi or continue with Mikel San Jose and Aymeric Laporte.
Last season’s corresponding fixture ended in a 2-2 draw though the game came at a bad time, falling between the two legs of the Champions League semi-final with Bayern Munich. Tomorrow’s game will be a tough test for Barça but it is probably a positive thing that the players get the chance to show their character so soon after the Ajax defeat. A win and a good performance will restore pride while supporting the argument that the Ajax game was just a blip. Anything else, however, will surely increase the scrutiny of Martino’s methods and the more excitable members of the press will no doubt start to talk of a crisis.
Barça’s 18-man squad: Pinto, Oier, Montoya, Patric, Bartra, Piqué, Mascherano, Adriano, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Sergi Roberto, Iniesta, Fabregas, Alexis, Pedro, Neymar, Adama.
Athletic: Iraizoz; Iraola, Gurpegi, Laporte, Balenziaga; Iturraspe, Mikel Rico; Herrera, Munian, Susaeta; Toquero.
Barça: Pinto; Montoya, Bartra, Piqué, Adriano; Fabregas, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Neymar, Pedro.
Prediction: Athletic 1 Barça 2
Date: Sunday 1 December 2013. Kick off 9 pm local time.