15:15 GMT, Sunday 18th March, Camp Nou (Barcelona, Spain)
Barcelona continue to march on towards a possible treble in Ernesto Valverde’s first season in charge of the Catalan giants. The 54-year-old will hope to continue their unbeaten run against the side with whom he had so much success as both player and manager, Athletic Bilbao.
The league-leaders are currently eight points clear of second-placed Atletico Madrid, and an astonishing 15 points ahead of rivals Real Madrid. They are undefeated in their last 35 league fixtures and are yet to lose in La Liga 2017/18. Barcelona comfortably dispatched Chelsea in midweek to secure themselves a place in the Champions League quarter-finals.
With La Liga all but won, the Catalans are eyeing up all three major trophies towards the end of this season. The extent of their lead at the top of the table will allow them to rest the ageing legs of Andres Iniesta and experiment with the less celebrated members of their squad.
It has been a mixed bag for Athletic Bilbao this season. The Basques are stuck well within the bounds of mid-table mediocrity and look a shadow of the side that finished 7th last season under the tutelage of Valverde himself.
Athletic have finished in the top seven for the past four seasons and will be very disappointed not to be in the race for European qualification this time around. Jose Angel Ziganda’s side trail sixth-placed Villarreal by nine points and are showing few signs of chasing down the leading pack.
With only two wins in their last ten La Liga games, Athletic appear to have already fallen too far off the pace to match last season’s achievements. Ten games still remain, yet they require a truly exceptional finish if they are to secure a top half placing.
Last Time Out
Barcelona 3-0 (4-1 on aggregate) Chelsea (UEFA Champions League-Round of 16-Second Leg)
A 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in the first leg had left this tie finely balanced heading into Wednesday night’s clash.
The hosts were made to work hard for their victory by an enterprising Chelsea side, yet were ultimately far more clinical than their London opponents.
It took only 3 minutes for Barcelona to take the lead through talisman Lionel Messi who slotted the ball between the legs of a flailing Thibaut Courtois to score his first of the night and settle home nerves.
In the 20th minute, Messi produced yet another moment of genius in a performance of real footballing poetry. The Argentinian wizard bewitched the helpless Chelsea defence with a wonderful feint before setting up Ousmane Dembele, who finished with aplomb.
Chelsea continued to play high up the pitch in search of the goal that would bring them back into the tie. Another Messi goal on the hour mark, however, put an end to the visitor’s hopes of an unlikely comeback and sent Barcelona onwards into the quarter-finals.
Athletic Bilbao 1-2 (2-5 on aggregate) Marseille (UEFA Europa League-Round of 16-Second Leg)
Athletic headed into their home leg fixture needing to overturn a 1-3 away defeat. They could not ultimately cope with the superior creative attacking talent of the opposition and never really looked like progressing through to the next round.
The tie was put almost beyond doubt in the 38th minute when Dimitri Payet converted a penalty that he himself had won, having been brought down in the box.
The home side did not really threaten after the break, and any chance of an unlikely comeback was conclusively ended by a brilliant effort from Lucas Ocampos after 52 minutes.
Inaki Williams pulled one back for Athletic in the 74th minute, yet it proved little consolation for the Basques and they threatened to collapse after striker Aritz Aduriz’ second yellow card.
It was a disappointing end to their European run for Athletic Bilbao and they will now hope to salvage their season with improved performances in the league.
Ernesto Valverde will have to rely on the enviable depth of his squad this weekend as he contends with a number of absentees.
Defender Nelson Semedo (hamstring) is still a few weeks away from recovery.
Midfield pair Denis Suarez (groin) and Sergio Busquets (broken toe) are long-term injury absentees.
Luis Suarez will be suspended for Sunday’s encounter, having reached his yellow card limit in the league.
Athletic Bilbao Lineup
Jose Angel Ziganda will have to do without the services of forward Iker Muniain (cruciate ligament) who has not yet returned to full match fitness.
There are also doubts over the availability of defenders Yeray Alvarez (hamstring) and Mikel Balenziaga (muscle).
Central midfielder Mikel Rico (hamstring) is also unlikely to feature as he continues his recovery from injury.
Key Battle: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) vs Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao)
Lionel Messi has delighted the Nou Camp crowd on countless occasions in his marvellous career. His performance against Chelsea in midweek provided yet another example of why he is considered by many to be the best to have ever played the game.
The 30-year-old has enjoyed another astonishing season, scoring 24 goals in 26 La Liga starts. He has seven goals and three assists in his last six competitive games and continues to be impossible for opposition sides to contain.
Messi is never truly out of form, but he is certainly at his very best at present.
37-year-old Aritz Aduriz has had a remarkable season himself in 2017/18. The veteran striker has scored 16 goals in all competitions, including eight goals in nine UEFA Europa League games. He remains a dominant physical presence, despite his ageing legs, and poses a serious threat at the set-piece.
Aduriz has failed to score in his last six La Liga games and will be determined to carry his European form back into domestic competition.
With a marksman such as Aduriz in the side, Athletic always have the chance of causing an upset.
The old boy turned enemy
Sunday will see Ernesto Valverde face the side that he has been an integral part of for a significant proportion of his footballing career. Valverde played 170 games for Athletic Bilbao, scoring 44 goals in the process. He later went on to manage the Basques for four years, before being appointed by Barcelona last summer.
The 54-year-old led Athletic to a 4th placed finish in his first season in charge and qualified for European competition in all four of his years at the helm. They have certainly felt his absence keenly this time around and it must surely be difficult for Athletic fans to see him flourish at his new club whilst their side continue to decline.
Can Athletic turn around their woeful away record?
The real thorn in Athletic Bilbao’s side of late has been their poor performances away from home. The Basques have failed to win in their past five games on the road, losing their last three.
Their better displays this season have been based on the combination of a resolute defence and well-executed set-pieces. In recent weeks, however, defensive cohesion has been lacking and they have been overrun by sides determined to put in positive displays in front of their home fans.
Ziganda will be most concerned by how blunt his side have been in attack. Athletic have failed to score in their last three away fixtures. It is all well and good for Athletic to sort out their defence, but if they cannot rely on their forward players to take their chances then their counterattacking style quickly collapses into passivity.
Prediction: Barcelona 3-1 Athletic Bilbao
It is very difficult to see Barcelona losing their unbeaten record on Sunday afternoon. The Catalans have been in imperious form at home and comfortably dispatched English champions Chelsea in midweek. Athletic Bilbao possess nothing like the quality of Chelsea and will find it hard to make any serious inroads into the Spanish champions-elect this weekend.
Will Barcelona continue their unbeaten run?
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