Barcelona travel to the San Mamés to take on Athletic Bilbao. Here are a few pre-game observations
League Frontrunners Already
Matchday one is over and the La Liga table already has a familiar look to it; Barcelona in the top spot, Real Madrid fighting for second, and Atlético Madrid trailing. As one would guess, there is a hard and arduous battle ahead for the league crown. Barça will attempt to retain the trophy, Atletico will look to overturn the trophy, and Real will attempt to do whatever it is they do every year in the league. Barça stand on top based on goal difference, something that will probably change as the league proceeds further. One thing remains certain however, La Liga fans are prepared for an exciting battle for the top spot.
Getting rid of the San Mamés early in the season
The San Mamés is a notoriously difficult stadium to play at; Athletic Bilbao’s energetic style of play, backed by their tumultuous crowd makes for a cauldron of intense pressure and football. Playing Bilbao away this early in the season could be beneficial for Barça in the long run. For starters, playing the San Mamés now crosses it off the list for later in the season when the calendar becomes hectic. The next game against Bilbao will be in the Camp Nou with the home crowd behind the team.
Another advantage is the fact that Bilbao has started the season off with a loss already and while it is a safe assumption that Athletic at the San Mamés is a different beast altogether, any inconsistencies or weaknesses in Bilbao’s form and mentality will be exploited clinically by Barcelona. Players like Suárez and Messi simply do not allow the opponent many mistakes before capitalizing on one or two. Athletic will have to be imperious to defeat Barça.
Another point of comfort Culés can take is that Bilbao has lost the last five games against Barcelona. Their last win came in 2013 in the form of a 1-0 victory at San Mamés; Barça were without Leo Messi that night. Two of the last five victories for the Blaugrana have come on the road. Luis Enrique will be looking to extend the record to six victories in a row.
Starting XI already known
“The mark of a great team is that you already know their starting lineup” – Arsène Wenger
The Blaugrana will be without Neymar and Andrés Iniesta for the game at the San Mamés. Luckily, Denis Suárez and Arda Turan will be ready to step up as they have been for the previous three games. The rest of the starting eleven would be quite easy to deduce. As one would presume, Leo Messi is expected to start alongside Luis Suarez, both of whom have scored a brace and a hat trick on Saturday against Betis, respectively. Arda Turan will complete the attacking trio, having also scored a goal on Saturday.
Midfield will contain the usual suspects, barring any injuries. As mentioned above, Denis Suarez will be taking the place of Iniesta. Having impressed thus far this season, Lucho should see no reason to drop the exciting new midfielder. The Croatian Ivan Rakitic will start alongside him to provide Barça’s engine, with Sergio Busquets completing the trio. Sergio has had a slow start to the season, not playing up to the usual level most Culés are used to seeing him play; however, he did look very much like his old self against Real Betis at the Camp Nou last Saturday. Busquets will have to be at his best if Barça hope to defeat a tough Bilbao team.
With Javier Mascherano and Jérémy Mathieu injured, predicting the back four should be relatively easy. Piqué will undoubtedly be a starter. Partnering him will be Samuel Umtiti, a player Barça fans are starting to fall in love with rather quickly. Umtiti’s positional sense, passing ability, calm demeanor, and tackling ability will be vital for this season; shades of Eric Abidal. The dynamic Sergi Roberto is likely to take up the right-back spot over Aleix Vidal. The only position that Luis Enrique will be having a headache over is the left-back spot. Lucas Digne has been a revelation in the three games that he has played and Jordi Alba will have his hands full attempting to retain the starting berth for the season. Any blip in Jordi’s form will be a chance for Lucas to shine. As for the game against Bilbao, Alba has given Lucho no reason to drop him from the starting eleven.
Marc Andre Ter-Stegen is fit and is expected to start in goal.
Arda Turan will get a chance to shine further
Neymar will not be returning to Barcelona until after the international break, much to Arda’s relief. The Turkish midfielder has had his troubles this past year. Starting his Barcelona career in the middle of the season due to a ban last year, Arda had sporadic appearances in the second half of last season. The ensuing Euro’s didn’t uplift his performances much either. His less than impressive performances incurred the wrath of demanding Turkish fans, who proceeded to jeer him with every touch of the ball against Spain.
This season however, Turan seems to have been reborn in the winger role usually occupied by Neymar. With a brace against Sevilla in the Spanish Super Cup and a goal against Betis in the league opener, Arda has started this season fantastically. Culés will hope to see him perform against Bilbao as well, as he will be starting. His creativity, work rate, and eye for goal will be needed.
While he might lack Neymar’s flair and speed, Turan brings additional qualities to the table. His creative determination and his work rate make up almost entirely for his lack of electrifying speed. He can run all game and still have energy left over at the end of the match to score the winning goal. On his day, Arda Turan is an unstoppable juggernaut; whether or not Arda will remain consistent for the entirety of the season remains to be seen. Should he keep performing, Luis Enrique will be using him heavily this season. When Neymar returns to Barça, he could have heavy battle for the starting spot on his hands.