19.45 BST, Saturday 28th October, San Mames Stadium (Bilbao, Spain)
Since their 5-1 humiliation over the two legs of the Supercopa at the hands of Real Madrid, Barcelona have won 12 of their subsequent games in all competitions, with the only blight being a creditable 1-1 away draw against Atletico Madrid. Bilbao old boy Valverde will expect nothing less than another comfortable win in this fixture.
All is not well in Bilbao. Having grown accustomed to European football in the past few seasons, they have shown little to suggest that is a status they will maintain this time around. In their last 11 games in all competitions, the Basque club have come away with only one victory, against Sevilla. A scoring draw against Swedish side Oestersunds FK epitomised their struggle this season. They will hope to pull themselves out of this dire run as soon as possible lest they lose any prospect of European competition next year.
Last Time Out
Leganes 1-0 Athletic Bilbao (La Liga)
A goal from Claudio Beauvue was enough to see off a Bilbao team who, despite dominating possession, failed to create many meaningful opportunities. Inigo Cordoba did his best to inspire the languid Athletic outfit but, without any active support up-front, his impressive direct play went largely unrewarded. Athletic are adrift in 11th position whilst Leganes head up to 5th.
Barcelona 2-0 Malaga (La Liga)
Gerard Deulofeu scored his first senior goal for the Catalan giants after some controversy over whether assist maker Lucas Digne had carried the ball over the byline in the build up. A deflected Iniesta shot in the second half secured the 3 points for Barcelona who are now 4 points clear at the top.
Athletic Bilbao Lineup
Iker Munian remains a long-term injury absence for Athletic. Continued ankle problems mean left back Mikel Balenziaga may be a doubt.
Jordi Alba should return to the lineup after shaking off a groin injury. Midfielder Arda Turan remains doubtful as he continues to recover from a hamstring strain. Ousmane Dembele and Rafinha are both long-term absences.
Key Battle: Unai Nunez (Athletic Bilbao) vs Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
Having only made the transition from the reserves this season, Nunez, 20, has been one of the few positives in Athletic’s poor start to the season. The young centre back has looked unfazed by La Liga but if the home side are to get any kind of result on Saturday, he will have to put in the best performance of his short career.
14 goals in his first 12 games of the season from Lionel Messi is the kind of form that we are now used to witnessing from the Argentine. Bilbao are sure to play for the draw and Messi will once again be vital in seeking to create an opening goal to open the floodgates.
Can Bilbao’s home form hold?
For all their flaws, Athletic tend to be reasonably solid at home. They have avoided loss in 20 of their last 22 matches at San Mames. Their only home loss in the league this season was the 2-1 defeat to Atletico Madrid. In their last home game they beat Sevilla 1-0, putting in exactly the kind of focused defensive performance that is required this time around.
Are Barcelona already too far ahead?
Barcelona have set the pace confidently in the first few months of the season. With Real Madrid showing signs of recovery and Valencia showing no signs of slowing down, the pressure has not lifted. There are still defensive concerns and despite their fine start they cannot afford to slip up.
Prediction: Athletic Bilbao 0-2 Barcelona
Athletic Bilbao are a different prospect at home and will hope to take inspiration from their strong performance against Sevilla. On this occasion however, Barcelona will be too strong to withstand and should come away with a comfortable win in what may prove a welcome return for Valverde.
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