After their first full week of rest – owing to the fact that there is no European burden on them anymore – Barcelona travels to the Basque citadel of Bilbao, facing an away challenge against their ex-coach Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Club. The Lions of Vizcaya can be a tough opposition for any club, while Xavi’s boys are looking to restore their 9-point lead atop the table.
Date: Sunday, 12th March 2023
Competition: La Liga Santander
Venue: Estadio San Mamés, Bilbao
Time: 21:00 pm Central European Time
Referee: Jesús Gil Manzano
Although Bilbao started the season unexpectedly well, which convincingly justified Valverde’s appointment, the last period of the season was nothing short of a disappointment for the Basque fanatics. Since the World Cup, they managed to claim only 8 points in 10 league games, and just a single point in the last 3 matches indicates a poor recent form of Valverde’s crew.
However, based on statistics, their 9th position on the table can be misleading as they possess a more potent force than an average mid-table team. Their expected metrics fall well into the best of the rest category; their expected goal difference as well as their expected points are the fourth best in the league (based on Soccerment’s data).
Thus, their performance could be simply labeled as unlucky as they should compete for the Champions League spots based on the quality of their play, and this kind of misfortune is bound to come to an end sometime. Against Barcelona, their counter-pressing can cause difficulties for the Blaugrana, and their essentially stronger defensive play may make them prevail.
Barcelona, on the other hand, were given a huge boost by the return of Lewandowski to the squad, whose presence is key despite his poor run of finishing lately. In contrast, Xavi cannot count on Ronald Araújo due to his suspension claimed against Valencia, with the Uruguayan likely to be replaced by either Eric García or Marcos Alonso.
The question of whether Xavi opts to stay with the WM or revert to 4-3-3 is still left to be answered as even in the absence of Pedri, La Computadora chose the 4-midfielder setup in the crucial encounter against Real Madrid as well. Though, if he chooses to change, Ansu Fati or Ferrán Torres might get a chance to showcase their potency to prevail at the highest level.
Since there is no European cup on the horizon, the Catalans can now solely focus on the domestic stage. Bilbao is indeed a difficult opponent by all means, and there is no need to reserve unless serious probability of injury setback, but also a moment to capture for the players fighting for a place in the team.
A successful visit at the San Mamés would mean the restoration of a 9-point gap over Real Madrid, and a further step made to cement the lead atop the La Liga standings and edge closer and closer to the much-coveted league title.
Especially knowing that next weekend the second episode of the El Clásico show takes place, it would be crucial to overcome the pressure and come out victorious against a tough opposition.