Liga Preview: Athletic Bilbao – Barça Saturday 4pmEST, ESPN Deportes/ESPN 3
“We’re headed to Basque country this weekend.”
Aw jeez. We’re going north, to the land of screaming Bilboners, where they make bulls run over people before they themselves are slaughtered, and where we don’t always have an easy time of it. We drew with them 1-1 last year in this fixture and this year doesn’t sound any easier: no Lionel Messi.
So, then, how do we approach this? Well, the squad list gives us some clues: Valdés, Pinto, Adriano, Maxwell, Alves, Piqué, Puyol, Milito, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, Mascherano, Jeffren, Bojan, Pedro, Villa, Keita, Thiago.
My personal preference is that we go with a 4-3-3 that includes Busi, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa, Pedro, Bojan up front, but the probable physical nature of the match (depending on how referee Mateu Lahoz calls it early) would suggest that Keita should start to provide steel against Athletic’s serious counterattacks. I’ve now seen 3 Athletic matches this year out of 4 and they’re good. They’re not mega good, but they’re good. Like, fast, intelligent, and damn strong. Llorente is going to take up the center a lot and push people around. Except that Pique and Puyol are going to kidney punch him whenever they can. And that’s why Milito and Mascherano shouldn’t start: yellow cards will come thick and fast in this one and we don’t need defensive lynchpins picking up cheapies in the first 10 minutes.
Athletic will not make this easy for us, so do not expect a romp in the park. I think we have our defensive frailties figured out, but Abidal’s continued absence will not be a good thing on their counters.
Official Prediction: 1-1. Goal by Pedro. I know. That sucks. But I don’t have a huge amount of confidence in Maxwell’s defense–his forward runs are better than Abidal, but he is simply not capable of covering ground like the Frenchman and that’s what’s going to be necessary to stop a blitz from Igor Martinez. And don’t forget that they’re going to have Javi Martinez smashing things in the middle of the park. If we can get him an early, early yellow, we have a shot at this one. Otherwise, it’s 9 behind the ball and zippy counters.
Time: 10pm local/Bilbao time, 4pm EST/NY time, check your local time here.
TV: According to the online guide, ESPN Deportes and ESPN3 will show this match in the US.
Would anyone like to run the liveblog tomorrow? Please let me know if you’re willing via an email or in the comments. Massive apologies for the shortness of this preview, but things spiraled today and yadda yadda you don’t care. I’ll make it up to you on Tuesday with a brilliant beyond belief preview of the trip to Rubin Kazan.
Also, if you’re able to make it, either Monday or Tuesday evening (US time) we’ll be having a Live Chat with the writers of this here blogspace that you won’t want to miss. Hopefully it will work out super well and we’ll make it a regular event. I’ll explain more when we have a concrete time, but basically, start prepping questions for us to answer.