FC Barcelona v. Athletic Bilbao – 20:00 CET, 14:00 EST – ESPN3.com
We’re sitting on top of a Copa del Rey goldmine here! Excitement abounds for the kids’ competition, so get ready for hot cup action Barcelona fans! Tuesday at 20:00 CET at the Camp Nou Barcelona takes on Athletic Bilbao in the first leg of the round of 16 matches. The return match is to be January 5, 2011 at San Mames and the winner here takes on the winner of Real Betis and Getafe in the Quarterfinals. This is the round where Barcelona dropped from the competition last year and Guardiola will certainly be looking to improve upon that finish and move toward adding another trophy to his personal mantle. Plus it’s the last game of the 2010 calendar year and the first game since we have been summarily stripped of our title of Club World Champions and the nifty little badge that came along with it, which was the best part, let’s all be honest with ourselves. Let’s go out with a bang then, shall we?
On the whole, I think Copa del Rey games can be instructive and useful for a club like Barcelona. They provide an avenue for youth players and reserves to get some quality first-team experience with the manager and other players against teams usually trotting out one of their strongest line-ups. While training is certainly the most common way to integrate younger or newer players, cup matches afford the staff a better look against different competition. However, I also believe that the Copa del Rey is woefully ill-scheduled and can lead to more problems than it is worth. The fact that teams are still playing two-sided ties until the final with cramped league schedules and continental concerns is a joke. It’s just adding games that could easily be decided by one game and that can result in serious injuries for either team. Hell, let’s play at the lower-ranked side’s grounds, I’ll make concessions, let’s just get this antiquated system over with.
The retort to this is both obvious, and likely somewhat meaningful: “Luke you worthless, elitist twit! Just because Barcelona has such concerns does not mean that Bilbao, Getafe, and the like do. And also, why would you remove another game from the players who need greater development in the system like Thiago and Fontas or those who are having trouble getting first team minutes but need thim like Bojan and Adriano?” Of course, this assumes that after this stage Barcelona is still starting the kids and not playing the likes of Messi and Xavi because a loss, even in the Copa del Rey, still incurs the wrath of fans and the board for the managing staff and the players. So? Double-edged sword? Sure, why not! Have a tough first leg against Bilbao, we’ll play Xavi, Iniesta, and Puyol in the second leg, risking injury and exhaustion, because Cthulhu only knows that losing the Copa del Rey means we are teh worst team in the planets.
Seriously though, I’d love to win this Cup, but not at the expense of La Liga or the Champion’s League. Anyway, enough of my petty squabbles with imaginary you all and on to the matter at hand. Athletic Bilbao are a club I respect a lot and probably one of the clubs I enjoy watching in La Liga the most outside of Barca. They have a lot of talent throughout the roster and don’t seem to go into their shell too often, which is always a plus. They also house two World Champions in the persistently annoying goal scoring threat of Fernando Llorente (more on him later) and DM Javi Martinez, who is dangerous in a lot of places, and I feel, vastly underrated. GK Iraizoz isn’t bad either, a serviceable and useful keeper who tends to keep the Candystripers in matches. They are also one of the 3 clubs never to have been relegated from La Liga, I bet you cannot guess the other two.
Unfortunately, Llorente, Bilbao’s best goalscoring threat with 10 goals on the season in La Liga is definitely out tomorrow, meaning there is a decent chance we might start seeing that shell I was talking about earlier. And they run into the unstoppable killing machine that is FC Barcelona. Granted we likely won’t be playing with a full side tomorrow, or maybe we will because we can’t figure out Pep’s tricks, since only Thiago trained with the first-teamers today. Either way, it doesn’t seem to matter as Rubin Kazan found out and we’ve been spanking teams on the trot recently.
I’m seeing this one as playing out a little slowly at first. Bilbao takes possession and control until Barcelona wrests it away and stops the early chances almost completely in about the 10-15 minute range, at which point a goal comes and the game starts to settle into the familiar morass that we have come to know and love. I am just feeling this side is looking to strong right now and with Bilbao without their best player, it looks so enticing, but then doubt creeps in. We have taken lesser sides for granted and been bitten in the ass because of it. Not now though. Pep aims to win and seems to have overcome the team’s penchant to play down to opponents that should be handily beaten. After beating Almeria 8-0 and Real Sociedad 5-0, it just seems to me the team turned the corner.
So look for the usual Crazy Ass Pep Line-up tomorrow. I am going to guess at Pinto, Alves, Pique, Abidal, Maxwell, Mascherano, Adriano, Keita, Pedro, Bojan, Messi. Because why not right? We don’t need a facilitator right? If it wasn’t for Messi’s insistence on being that annoying kid in little league who wanted to play every second of every game, I would think he’d sit, but no. Incidentally this would be the perfect game to have Afellay because we could slot him up front and rest Pedro or Messi for a while, but we won’t be seing him until 2011 as he won’t be here until December 24. I would also love to see Thiago get some action, maybe even start, which would be good for him.
Prediction: 3-1. Goals by Bojan (x 2) and Messi.
Also, in case I do not post before the 25th, I would like to wish all of you an extremely happy holiday. It’s the time for holiday breaks here in the U.S. and I hope, wherever you are, if you are traveling, you stay safe and enjoy yourself. Enjoy whatever holiday tradition you may be celebrating or have already celebrated, be it Festivus, Eid, Hanukkah, Christmas, super secular winter get together time (my personal favorite), or whatever.
Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images Europe