Previewing Athletic Club vs Barcelona: La Liga Matchday 1
Athletic football has finally returned and the Lions will host none other than reigning champions Barcelona on Friday night at San Mames. Gaizka Garitano’s side has looked strong throughout the summer, with great performances against Roma and West Ham, and will be looking to build on the momentum of last season. Playing at home will give the Basques extra motivation and energy, but getting a positive result against Barcelona is never easy.
Ernesto Valverde returns to San Mames with a team full of quality after signing the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie De Jong, and Junior Firpo over the summer. The tactics at Barcelona likely won’t change much from what was used last season, but the squad itself is certainly stronger. As always, the Catalans will look to control possession and pace of play, though they have had their problems in Bilbao in recent years.
Last season, the Lions were able to secure two draws against Barcelona with exciting performances in both matches. A high press strangled the Blaugrana midfield and led to several turnovers which created chances in the final third. Garitano will likely look to use similar tactics on Friday night in hopes of forcing mistakes and capitalizing on important chances.
Barcelona will be without Lionel Messi who has been dealing with an injury that has forced him to miss training. Being without their best player is always challenging, but as several Athletic players have pointed out the rest of the Barcelona squad is full of other talented stars who can also impact results. There will be no relaxing for the Basques who still recognize the constant danger even without Messi on the field.
Likewise, Athletic will also be without important players. Inigo Martinez, Ibai Gomez, and Inigo Cordoba will all miss the the season opener with various injuries. The trio haven’t been able to train at all throughout the week, though Garitano is optimistic that some or all will be back for the next match against Getafe. Meanwhile, Unai Nunez is expected to start alongside Yeray in defense while Oscar De Marcos and Gaizka Larrazbal will both be options for the right wing.
Barring any unforeseen changes, Ander Capa and Yuri Berchiche will bookend the defense. There’s a chance that Berchiche could play further up the field as he did at times last year, though it’s not expected. Dani Garcia, Unai Lopez, and Raul Garcia will make up the midfield with Iker Muniain on a wing and Inaki Williams leading the attack. Garitano has also called up recently promoted Dani Vivian and Oihan Sancet who could both make their debuts as could Larrazabal. Unai Simon is the favorite to start in goal, but Gaizka refused to comment on the position during his pregame press conference.
In order to get a positive result against Barcelona, Athletic will have to neutralize the middle the of field. Barcelona rely on the midfield to tie everything together and the Lions showed last season that their high press can cause major problems. Additionally, Inaki Williams’ pace could be a huge factor against Barcelona’s center-backs who will have their hands full. If Athletic can make the most of their opportunities, slow down Barcelona’s engine, and not make any glaring errors they could surprise the reigning champions on opening night.
Projected Athletic Club XI: Unai Simon, Ander Capa, Unai Nunez, Yeray, Yuri Berchiche, Dani Garcia, Unai Lopez, Oscar De Marcos, Raul Garcia, Iker Muniain, and Inaki Williams