Bilbao v Barcelona: Messi, others begin 2017 with a Cup dateShare:
The first game of the new year for Lionel Messi and his troops is a Copa del Rey date with a very familiar opponent in recent seasons Athletci Bilbao at San Mamés Barria on Thursday on the evening that the Three Kings arrive in Spain from the Orient bearing gifts.
Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen came back from the winter break with a soleus injury, but otherwise Barça have no injury concerns to deal with. Denis Suárez, Aleix Vidal and Jeremy Mathieu (the latter recently declared fit after a two-month absence) have been dropped from the travelling party of 18, which includes Ter Stegen, Masip, Piqué, Rakitic, Sergio, Arda, Iniesta, Suárez, Messi, Neymar Jr, Rafinha, Mascherano, Paco Alcácer, Jordi Alba, Digne, Sergi Roberto, André Gomes and Umtiti.
The home team have considerably more difficulties to contend with. With Óscar de Marcos, Yeray Álvarez and Ager Aketxe already side-lined, Íñigo Lekue is the latest casualty, but midfielder Beñat Etxebarria has been cleared for action.
Barcelona made it into the last sixteen with a convincing 8-1 rout of Herculés over two legs, while the Basques were similarly impressive as they beat Racing Santander 5-1 on aggregate. Both sides are also still alive in Europe, Athletic now preparing for a Europa League round of 16 meeting with APOEL of Cyprus.
Barça are of course second in La Liga, while Athletic are a commendable seventh. Their home form has been especially impressive this season.
Although they lost their opening Liga fixture in Bilbao, they are unbeaten at home since with five wins and one draw. The good news is that that solitary home defeat was against Barça, Rakitić scoring the only goal of the game.
Not just in La Liga, but in the Copa del Rey and Super Cup as well, Barça and Athletic have met no fewer than 31 times in the last ten years. And although the 4-0 defeat in the 2015 Super Cup is a bitter memory for Barça fans, that was just one of two defeats for the Catalans in all those games.
Those victories have included no fewer than three Copa del Rey Finals, and Barça also won both legs when the two sides met in last season’s edition of the cup.
The last thee Liga meetings have also gone their way, so there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about Barça’s chances. And even if things don’t quite go to plan, there’s always the second leg at the Camp Nou next week to set things straight!
Luis Enrique - Barcelona manager
"Everyone has been able to enjoy a few days rest and I am happy with the shape the players have come back in … I don't think Athletic will change the way they defend.
"They are a brave team that tries to overwhelm you with their pressing, and who aren't scared of leaving spaces behind … In the league they caused us problems and I expect to face the kind of Athletic that turns up for big occasions."
Ernesto Valverde - Bilbao boss
"To go at Barça you have to really mean it, otherwise you have no option but to drop back because they’ll always create trouble if you allow them space. There are times when their passing game pushes you back, and we need to be prepared to get out of those situations. We need to create chances."
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