Barça travel to Bilbao tomorrow to take on Athletic Club at San Mames in the 22nd round of La Liga 2014/15 (Sunday 9 pm). Since Real Madrid won their game in hand against Sevilla in midweek to open a four-point gap at the top of the table there is little margin of error for Luis Enrique’s men in the remaining seventeen matches. Madrid play at Atlético this afternoon with injury problems mounting. Barça must be ready to take advantage of any slip-up from Ancelotti’s team and can certainly not afford to lose any more ground in the title race.
There are no fresh injury worries for Barça which means only Douglas and Thomas Vermaelen are unavailable tomorrow. Dani Alves, who is rumoured to be looking at a move to Man United in the summer, did specific recovery work on Thursday but has trained normally with the group since then.
Last week for the game against Villarreal Luis Enrique made a change to his supposed once de gala by bringing Rafinha into the team in place of Ivan Rakitic. Tomorrow we could again see a tweak or two to the line-up. With a Copa del Rey semi-final coming up just three days later the Barça coach will need to use more players if he intends to keep the squad fresh and competitive. Against Athletic’s fast-tempo and physical approach we could see Jeremy Mathieu brought into defence which would allow Javier Mascherano to play in midfield. A midfield three of El Jefecito, Rakitic and Rafinha would give us plenty of energy and would also offer the possibility of playing a fresh Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta trio against Villarreal.
Athletic have been having a disappointing season. Knocked out of the Champions League they have only managed 23 points so far in La Liga which despite leaving them in 11th place in the table, sees them much closer to the relegation zone (5pts) than to a place in Europe (15pts). Coach Ernesto Valverde will have to make do tomorrow without the injured Iturraspe and the suspended Iraola. De Marcos could be moved to right back in place of Iraola with San Jose coming into midfield for Iturraspe. The main doubt is whether Gurpegi or Jabier Etxeita will accompany the excellent Aymeric Laporte in central defence.
Barça haven’t won in Bilbao since a 1-3 win in the 2010/11 season. Since then we have drawn 2-2 twice before last season’s 1-0 defeat under Tata Martino. Given that Athletic are bound to try and attack us at San Mames we could see a similar pattern to that seen in Barça’s recent cup victory at the Calderón with Messi, Suarez and Neymar exploiting the spaces left by the home team. The Basque Country has proved a poor hunting ground in recent years but Luis Enrique has stated that the players have been at their best in training this week and if we can maintain the excellent form seen in recent weeks we should see the winning streak extended to nine games.
Athletic: Iraizoz; De Marcos, Etxeita, Laporte, Balenziaga; Rico, San Jose; Susaeta, Unai Lopez, Muniain; Aduriz.
Barça: Bravo; Alves, Piqué, Mathieu, Alba; Rakitic, Mascherano, Rafinha; Suarez, Messi, Neymar.
My Prediction: Athletic 1 Barça 3
Date: Sunday 8 February 2015. Kick-off 9 pm local time.