La Liga is back with the new season getting underway on Friday night as Athletic Club welcome Barcelona to the Estadio San Mames.
Story Behind the Game
Both sides head into the league opener after reasonably positive pre-season schedules. Hosts Athletic won two of their six friendlies against Club Arenas and Borussia Monchengladbach while also drawing with West Ham, Roma, Paderborn and Numancia. Their solitary defeat came against Racing Santander.
Barcelona began their pre-season with a disappointing defeat to Chelsea in Japan before bouncing back with a win against Andres Iniesta’s new side, Vissel Kobe. Two wins against Napoli in the USA and another against Arsenal have them full of confidence ahead of the new season.
Although Barca have a good recent record against Athletic at San Mames, it is always a tough place to visit, with last season’s meeting between the sides at the stadium ending goalless. At the Camp Nou, a late Munir El Haddadi strike earned the Catalans a point after Oscar De Marcos had put Athletic ahead.
The opening fixture could have been kinder for both teams as they aim to make a fast start ahead of the rest of the games over the weekend. Los Leones will be aiming to improve on last season’s eighth placed finish when they missed out on Europa League qualification to Espanyol on the head-to-head rule.
As for Barcelona, they will be aiming for their third consecutive La Liga title but with Real Madrid strengthening with the likes of Eden Hazard moving to the Bernabeu and Atlético Madrid still a strong outfit under Diego Simeone, it may be a tougher task than expected. Three points at a tough venue like San Mames would be the perfect way for them to start the season and Ernesto Valverde will be hoping to do just that on Friday.
The big team news comes in the Barcelona squad where Lionel Messi misses out due to the calf strain he picked up which ruled him out of the trip to America. New goalkeeper Norberto Neto also misses out through injury while Arturo Vidal, Arthur, Jean-Clair Todibo and Moussa Wagué have been left at home.
Athletic have injury worries of their own with Inigo’s Martinez, Cordoba and Lekue missing out along with Ibai Gomez and Gorka Guruzeta. Likely to start on the bench, 19-year old Oihan Sancet has been called up to complete the squad.
Athletic Club (4-2-3-1): Herrerin; Capa, Nuñez, Yeray, Yuri; Lopez, Dani Garcia; Larrazabal, Raul Garcia, Muniain; Williams
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Semedo, Pique, Lenglet, Alba; Busquets, De Jong, Rakitic; Dembélé, Suarez, Griezmann
Iñaki Williams vs Gerard Pique
With Aritz Aduriz now 38-years old and not able to play every week, Williams takes centre stage for the Basques, following his new nine year deal at the club. Barcelona will be expected to control the game and Williams’ pace in forward areas will be crucial for Bilbao to cause Barcelona problems at the back. Pique has the experience but he does lack in pace and could be exploited by the frontman.
Dani Garcia vs Frenkie De Jong
Both teams have plenty of attacking talent but it’s in midfield where this game could be won or lost. Winning that battle to supply the likes of Williams and Antoine Griezmann will be a major part of the pattern of the game. De Jong is making his La Liga debut after his move from Ajax so may take time to adjust to the Spanish game whereas Garcia knows just what it takes to win games at this level and if he can get the better of his Barca counterpart then Athletic could gain an edge.
What the Managers Have Said
Gaizka Garitano, Athletic Club – “With the atmosphere of San Mames and the closeness we achieved with the stands last season, it is as if we are playing with one more. Since last year we have achieved very good results at home.
“We are aware that it will be difficult but we are optimistic of making things as difficult as possible. We are prepared to do it well; we are a very strong team at home.
“We hope to put on a good performance; we have to play the same game or better than last year to beat them. That is the goal we have in mind.”
Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona – “We are not going to take risks and less so with Leo (Messi). He hasn’t trained yet with the team, we will wait, but he is following a fairly good recovery process.
“It’s a complicated game to start with. They have had a good pre-season and play with a lot of high pressure and we have to be careful.
“We want to start off on a good note and win our third consecutive La Liga title.”