There is little that attracts the romantic in us like saying someone is both a genius and crazy. The image of Salvador Dali that comes to most people’s minds is the one where he’s wearing his wild-eyed look. We don’t talk about van Gogh without mentioning the ear. Even the more mundane of stars are less interesting to us if they’re not shaving their heads or jumping on couches. And so it is so much more fun to ask Marcelo Bielsa if he’s purposefully counting the steps he takes throughout a game in the hopes that he’ll say something interesting. Which, of course he did, but Sid Lowe makes a great point in that article: “They call the Argentinian El Loco and maybe they look too hard for madness.”
Is it madness to be obsessive about your opponents? Is it madness to have color-coded spreadsheets? Whatever, it’s much more fun to answer yes than to answer no. Watching Bielsa, though, misses the point: Bielsa isn’t worried about what you’re watching. He might even be happier if you watch him instead of figuring out how to beat his team. What has fallen apart since last year, however, is that it’s not all that hard to beat his team. There were internal squabbles, Javi Martinez’s acrimonious departure, and Fernando Llorente being treated despicably by fans for even suggesting he could move away from San Mames. There have been bust ups at training, the more recent loss of a team physio, and a dreadful start to the season. They’ve since made something of their season, climbing to 14th, but they were also recently crushed 5-1 at the Bernabeu.
Guardiola worked on tactics with Bielsa and both showed Manchester United the exit door from competitions thanks largely to the imperious use of space. But what was last year a titanic clash that Barça probably should have lost in San Mames has become the possibility of a blowout at home. With Aritz Aduriz their only signing of the summer, the team was suddenly missing key components. There were tired legs and confused players. And that was at the beginning of the year. The legs are probably finding their footing and the confusion seems to be wearing off to a certain degree, but a lack of coordination and an attempt by Bielsa to create a system that isn’t meshing well with the players has left Athletic well off its pace from last year. Losing its midfield general and effectively losing its dominate forward has meant a year in the doldrums for the only team not in the Big Two to have played in every season in Primera history. They won’t go down this year either, but barring a major turnaround, they’re already looking at midtable obscurity rather than Europa League finals. They were eliminated earlier from Europa League group I.
Specifically, the system looks to be coming down upon itself, one yellow card at a time. It’s the the 14th match of the season and already Iturraspe, Amorebieta, Susaeta, and Muniain all have 4 yellows. What’s more, Aduriz has 5 and De Marcos hassix. Those last two are forwards, remember, as is Muniain. Ander Herrera and Amorebieta also have red cards to their names. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dirty players playing dirty tactics, but it at the very least suggests that they are often out of position and going in clumsily in desperate attempts to win the ball back or make up for errors. That’s the positive way to look at it.
Bilbao’s squad list: Iraizoz, Toquero, Aurtenetxe, Amorebieta, San José, Iturraspe, Llorente, De Marcos, Ibai, Raúl, Susaeta, Muniain, Aduriz, Ander Herrera, Castillo, Ekiza, Igor Martínez, Ramalho, Laporte, Morán.
Perhaps you noted an interesting name in there: Ramalho. Jonás Ramalho Chimeno is, in case you missed the hooplah, a Basque-born player of Basque and Angolan descent. He’s the first mixed-race player to play for Athletic Bilbao and while an appearance against Barcelona wouldn’t be his first official appearance (that was way back on November 20, 2011 against Sevilla), it would be his first of the season and a further cementing of both his place in the squad and Athletic Bilbao’s commitment to their youth products, regardless of racial identity. It should be noted, of course, that a failure to play him is not an automatic sign of a lack of that commitment given that he is still just 19 and the opponent is none other than the number one team in the league.
Beyond that, there’s not much to mention. As a big fan of Gaizka Toquero (perhaps you’ve noticed this affinity on Twitter), I’m admittedly rather terrified of him as a strike force. Feel free to check out “his” magnificent tweets to understand exactly why I’m doubly worried about this #2. But, in all seriousness, it is pretty much about cojones in these matches. The teams seem to bring the best and worst out of each other, but to have a chance the challenge must be met with the blood up and the amplifiers cranked up to 11. And that’s not a thinly veiled request to start Thiago. Cojones, of course, suggests unthinking violence, but we’re not talking about England’s Bravest or Stoke City on a wet and windy Wednesday night. Instead, we’re talking about playing The Puyol Way: all heart, all the time. Never give up and never give in. Pay attention, Pique.
Barça may be coming off a Copa del Rey fixture against Alaves that suddenly weird with a goal against before Adriano and David Villa saved the day, but Messi was rested, which could spell a lot of trouble for Athletic. An in-form, rested Messi could be a disaster for a backline that hasn’t been particularly consistent. They turned in a shutout against Europa League group I stragglers Ironi Kiryat Shmona, but they otherwise haven’t held an opponent scoreless since their Copa del Rey first leg match against Eibar ended 0-0 on November 1. Before that, it was October 7 against Osasuna in the league. They only maintained a clean sheet one other time: their August 23 first leg demolition of Finish club HJK Helsinki in the Europa League qualification rounds.
Given that and given Barcelona’s penchant for some serious scorelines over the last few weeks, Basque fears that there could be a romp in the Camp Nou for the blaugrana are not particularly unfounded. Without Alves, however, injured in last weekend’s match, Montoya will be called upon again and while he is certainly capable, he is not as skilled as Alves at deploying across the whole right flank and occupying both an attacking and defensive position at once. This could shift the balance a little bit given Jordi Alba’s forward-going tendencies, but it shouldn’t be too big a worry given the rest the squad was able to get throughout the week.
Official Prediction: Barcelona 3 – 0 Athletic. Goals by Messi (2) and Tello.