FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club: La Liga Preview and Prediction
After a goalless draw at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, and Real Madrid defeating Real Sociedad, FC Barcelona’s title defense is under pressure. The Catalan side's path to retaining the La Liga title will see another possible roadblock as they host Athletic Bilbao in the 228th edition of the Athletic-Barcelona Clasico.
Quique Setien will be facing the heat in this game as his side dropped to second place in the standings after the draw with Sevilla. Real Madrid’s win resulted in Los Blancos going level on points with FC Barcelona. Zinedine Zidane’s men occupy first place, however, as they have a superior head-to-head record against the Blaugrana.
FC Barcelona have looked in fine fettle since La Liga’s restart. The Blaugrana have picked up seven points from a possible nine since the league resumed on June 12.
Their best performance was definitely the 4-0 drubbing of RCD Mallorca – Real Madrid’s opponents this week – at Estadi de Son Moix which saw talisman Lionel Messi provide two assists and score a goal.
Their last match, of course, resulted in a goalless draw. Julen Lopetegui’s men were defensively compact as they frustrated Messi and co., preventing them from hitting their stride.
Gaizka Garitano’s Athletic Bilbao too have been undefeated since the league’s resumption. Los Leones have drawn two and won one since La Liga restarted.
They impressively held Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid to a 1-1 draw at San Mames. Club captain Iker Muniain was the first on the scoresheet in that game, finding the net in the 37th minute. Their lead, however, was cancelled out two minutes later thanks to a goal from Diego Costa.
Garitano’s side were 1-0 winners over Real Betis in their last outing. An early seventh minute goal from Inigo Martinez was enough for Los Leones to pick up three points at San Mames.
Head to Head
Very few teams, other than Real Madrid, can boast of a respectable record against FC Barcelona. Athletic Bilbao are one of them.
The last six meetings between these La Liga institutions have seen an equal split. Both FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao have posted two wins each and drawn the remaining two games.
The free-scoring Blaugrana have found it tough to break down Athletic Bilbao’s defense in recent years, scoring five goals in this time period, and conceding three.
The visitors actually have a two-game winning streak (and three-game undefeated streak) against the Catalans. In the reverse fixture at San Mames this season, Athletic Bilbao won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Inaki Williams.
With the pressure to get a positive result, it will be interesting to see of FC Barcelona can overcome their hump against Los Leones.
Frenkie de Jong sustained a calf injury in the win over CD Leganes and is expected to sit out for the remainder of the month.
The Dutchman will be joined on the sidelines by Sergi Roberto and Ousmane Dembele.
Sergio Busquets and Arturo Vidal are expected to feature in this match but both players are just one booking away from a ban.
Garitano will only be missing Yuri Berchiche’s services for this game. The Spanish left-back will be serving a one-match suspension and Mikel Balenziaga is expected to slot in in his place.
Lionel Messi vs Unai Nunez
FC Barcelona’s fortunes this season have ebbed and flowed with that of Messi’s. If the Argentine is at his best, Barca are likely to win. If La Pulga is contained, then FC Barcelona wither.
This imbalance makes him all the more important – as seen by his direct goal contribution (21 goals and 14 assists).
The Argentine forward cut a forlorn figure in the draw against Sevilla. Athletic Bilbao will be hoping that their defensive unit, anchored by Unai Nunez can hold off Messi at Camp Nou.
Nunez is a rising star in Spain and this game will be a massive test of the defender’s credentials. Messi has scored 24 goals and provided 10 assists in 36 career games against Athletic Bilbao. It will be a hard task for Nunez to limit the Argentine legend’s influence in the game.
Sergio Busquets vs Raul Garcia
Two Spanish midfield veterans go head to head.
31-year-old Busquets is still the spine of FC Barcelona and his staked a claim to be considered as one of the greatest defensive midfielders in the history of the game. His tendency to break up play and be a reliable anchorman is still going strong.
33-year-old Garcia has quietly carved out a stellar career in Spain. He was a key player in the 2013-14 La Liga winning Atletico Madrid. For Athletic Bilbao, the Spaniard has become a major attacking threat from midfield since joining the Basque club in 2015 (46 goals in 161 games).
With 10 goals, Garcia is leading the scoring charts for Athletic Bilbao in La Liga this season. He is a danger in the air and can also ghost into scoring positions, making life tough for his marker.
Garcia recently scored in the 2-2 draw with Eibar and Setien will be relying heavily on Busquets to keep the veteran quiet at Camp Nou.
With Real Madrid now in the driving seat in the league table, the stakes are pretty high for FC Barcelona. It is no surprise that Gerard Pique is so riled up.
Setien’s cohorts cannot afford to slip up, unless Real Madrid do so themselves – an unlikely situation looking at their form and schedule.
In such circumstances, facing Athletic Bilbao, who have proved to be a bogey team, makes it an uphill task for the Catalans.
10th-placed Athletic Bilbao are six points behind fifth-placed Getafe. So, a Europa League spot is still possible for Los Leones and you can expect them to make like tough for Barcelona.
Still, FC Barcelona have made Camp Nou a fortress in the league this season (14 wins in 15 games) and they are favored to beat any opponent there. Sure, there is no room for errors from now on but the Catalan side knows how to turn it up at their historic home ground and you can expect them to do the same tomorrow.
Keeping this in mind, I see FC Barcelona eking out a 1-0 win in this Athletic-Barcelona clasico.
Predicted scoreline: FC Barcelona 1-0 Athletic Bilbao