Athletic Club faces defending champions FC Barcelona in Copa Del Rey Round of 16 fixture midweek. This season has been nothing short of a disappointment for Barcelona. As such, Copa Del Rey looks the only realistic chance of achieving silverware this season for them. On the other side, Athletic Club will be looking to get revenge against their opponents of the last year’s defeat in the final. Will they succeed in doing so or will FC Barcelona come out on top again?
Why should you be watching?
In recent years, the clash between Athletic and Barca has proved to be quite an entertainer. In fact, it is turning out to be an unexpected but fierce rivalry. Both the sides have some memorable as well forgettable moments against each other. Athletic Club’s victory over Barcelona in Supercopa De Espana last year was one of those moments. Notably, Lionel Messi received the only red card in his club career in that match.
However, Barca took sweet revenge by hammering Athletic in the Copa Del Rey Final last year. As things have gone by, once again, this game is expected to be action-packed with such moments. FC Barcelona has struggled to find form this season while their counterparts are traveling in the same boat. Will Barca cruise their way through this one or are we in for an upset? In any case, this is not a game that one should miss at any cost.
Athletic Club come on the back of a defeat against Real Madrid in the final of Supercopa de Espana last weekend. They lost the game 0-2 but it was by no means a walk in the park of the Madrid side. The Athletic players played some courageous football and it will surely boost their confidence ahead of this game. Their win over Atletico Madrid in the semi-final of Supercopa was a prime example of the talent and threat this team possesses. In the league, they have struggled to finish off matches and thus play 10 draws in the process. But by no means, one can underestimate this set of players who have a knack for giving a tough fight to stronger oppositions.
Since the arrival of ex-Valencia boss Marcelino, the team has improved drastically. He has transformed this side by adding young players like Oihan Sancet and Nico Williams along with using the experience of veterans like Inigo Martinez and Dani Garcia. The defense has been exceptional this season for the hosts. They have just conceded 17 goals in 21 games in the league this season behind only Sevilla. It is the goal-scoring that has been a concern. The forwards Inaki and Sancet have not been able to score on a consistent basis. However, against a shaky Barcelona defense, they can find form and help their team to progress through.
Athletic Club’s current form (Last 5 games) – LWDWW
Despite a disappointing result against Real Madrid, Marcelino might think of continuing with the same eleven. Unai Simon will continue between the sticks. The back four remains same with De Marcos, Alvarez, Inigo Martinez and Balenziaga. Berenguer and Muniain will form the 4 midfielders along with Dani Garcia and Vencedor who might replace Zarraga. Inaki Williams and Sancet will start as forwards. Mikel Vesga, Nico Williams, and Raul Garcia will be on the bench and may be required in the second half.
Formation : 4-4-2
GK: Unai Simon
DEFENCE: Oscar De Marcos, Yeray Álvarez, Inigo Martinez, Balenziaga
MIDFIELD: Alejandro Berenguer, Vencedor, Dani Garcia, Muniain
ATTACK: Inaki Williams, Oihan Sancet
Players to Watch Out For
It is safe to say that the veteran Spanishcenterback has been, without a doubt, one of the best center-backs this season. He also possesses a threat from set-pieces more often than not. Physically very strong, he has been able to shake off the opposition’s strikers quite comfortably. He loves to stay back as the last man and dictate the flow of the game. He has been very impressive defensively and even scored in the team’s last meeting with FC Barcelona. A lot will depend on him and his decision-making if Athletic are to come with flying colors off this one.
The Spanish No. 9 has always been a threat up front. Though he might not have great numbers this season, his pace has always troubled the opposition. He can cause difficulties playing against an aged Dani Alves on the left side. He has scored 5 goals and assisted 2 more so far this season. But it is not just the goals that he brings to the table, it is his acceleration and speed which make him more dangerous. He can once again be the key to unlocking the vulnerable Barca defense.
Head to Head
The previous encounter between the two sides resulted in a 1-1 draw. Athletic opened the scoring with Inigo Martinez scoring from a corner in the 1st half. The new arrival Memphis Depay equalized for Barca in the 2nd half. Another arrival Eric Garcia saw a straight red in the dying moments of the game after pulling Nico Williams down as the last defender. Earlier in Copa Del Rey Final, Barcelona dismissed Athletic Club 4-0. Griezmann scored the opener before Frenkie De Jong doubled the advantage. And then, one Leo Messi completed the rout by scoring a couple in quick succession to kill the game.
The visitors also enter this fixture after losing to Real Madrid in the semifinal of Supercopa De Espana. It was, however, a very impressive display by the Blaugranas who came back from behind 2 times before finally losing 3-2. It has been a little over 2 months since Xavi has taken coaching responsibilities for his former side. And things are starting to take shape. Slowly but surely, the team is getting back to the way it used to play in its glorious times. Since Xavi’s takeover, Barca has lost only 1 of the 8 games played in the league. Young players like Gavi, Nico, and Abde are finding the regular game time and safe to say, flourishing under Xavi. Even veterans like Luuk De Jong have regained form since the turn of the year.
However, the issues remain the same for the team. They have been leaking goals at crucial moments and are not able to equalize them. Keeping a clean sheet can be now considered a luxury. If Barca is to compete for any title this season, then they have to sort out their defensive fragilities as early as possible. Elsewhere, the goals have started to come on a regular basis now. They need to continue scoring goals with the same intensity against a very formidable Athletic defense. The return of Pedri and Ansu Fati is a much-needed positive ahead of this challenge. A lot will depend on them if Barca is to see off Athletic Club.
FC Barcelona’s current form (Last 5 games) – LDWWD
Xavi might be tempted to make a couple of changes to the side that lost to Real Madrid a week earlier. MATS will retain his position as goalkeeper. Dani Alves and Jordi Alba are also expected to start as full-backs with Pique and Araujo forming the center-back partnership. Busquets and Gavi will start along with Pedri who might replace Frenkie De Jong. Ansu Fati might also be given the nod against Ferran Torres. Since Luuk De Jong is suspended for this game his fellow countrymen Deapy will partner Dembele in the attack.
GK: Ter Stegen
DEFENCE: Dani Alves, Ronald Araujo, Pique, Jordi Alba
MIDFIELD: Busquets, Gavi, Pedri
ATTACK: Dembele, Depay, Ansu Fati
Players to Watch Out For
The Frenchman is slowly showing signs of his capabilities in his last few outings. Despite the obstacles in his contract talks, he has not let it affect his game at all. He has been quite influential in the past games and Barca needs him to showcase his top game in this one. With Luuk De Jong suspended, Dembele will shoulder the responsibility of creating Barca’s attacks upfront. His pace and acceleration can be a vital component against a resolute Athletic defense line.
Gavi has been nothing short of exceptional since his debut. He has to an extent solved the midfield woes of the team. What stands out is his progressive passing and ability to link up with the forward line. Defensively, he plays fearlessly with no hesitation in making strong tackles when required. Once again, the onus will be on him to unlock the defense of the Athletic Club. He is very good both on the ball and off the ball and might come in handy against an Athletic side that likes to defend deep.
La Liga’s title seems a far cry for FC Barcelona. So, Copa Del Rey seems the only realistic silverware that they can get their hands on this season. Athletic Club is also keen to get back to winning ways and gain some sort of momentum in the coming weeks. As such, it promises to be a cracker of a match and one cannot surely know who will snatch this one until the final whistle of the game.
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