Can Athletic Bilbao Cast A Shadow On Barcelona’s New Dawn?
Anyone who has seen Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour will see parallels between Ed Norton’s last day before incarceration and Barcelona’s summer activity.
As of now the Catalan giants are essentially in transfer prison, unable to make any deals until 2016 due to breaches of FIFA regulations, and so has ended a frantic few months of getting all their affairs in order. Their first call of business was finding temporary homes for their fringe players, similar to Norton seeking shelter for his beloved pet pooch.
“Porto, can you take care of Tello for us? He’s well trained but look out for him weeing on the carpet”
Then came the headline-makers.
A raft of big-name departures and arrivals have given Barcelona an unfamiliar feeling of flux following a philosophy that was famously founded on a slow, stable build to invincibility and this upheaval is extended beyond the pitch with a change of president and a new coach in the form of club legend Luis Enrique.
Puyol, their lion, has retired from the pride and the selling of Fabregas and Sanchez surprised but their replacements have been astute and ruthlessly attained in Vermaelen, Rakitic, and the man employed to add some fight and bite to the tiki-taka, Suarez. Rampaging full-back Douglas, the experienced Mathieu, and two new keepers competing for the number one jersey completes an expensive hoard to see them through their transfer purgatory and it’s reasonable to assume it will be some time before we witness the same settled side appearing each week.
Barcelona win 3/10
Athletic win 7/1
(All odds provided by Intertops.eu are accurate as of today and subject to change)
Enrique hasn’t been assisted in this regard by injuries, individual bans, and stars still shaking off the World Cup and the opening weeks have seen some La Masia schooled wonderkids breaking through and announcing their potential. One such teenage talent Sandro Ramirez crucially broke the deadlock at Villarreal to make it consecutive opening wins in their 2014/15 campaign and these kids are going to be invaluable to light up the Camp Nou until some sense of order is restored.
And what order is could ultimately be when Neymar fully recovers from his broken vertebra and Suarez sucks up his bite punishment to complete an attacking trio akin to a ten year olds on Football Manager. The third in that otherworldly triumvirate is of course Lionel Messi and the multiple Ballon D’Or winning genius wasted no time in ripping apart Elche on day one to banish any doubts of a Brazil hangover.
These have been turbulent, extraordinary times even by Barca standards and so it is vital they amass as many points as possible amidst the chaos. Once the dust settles you feel they will be unstoppable.
So it probably doesn’t help that week three sees them host an Athletic Bilbao side still buzzing from their Champions League qualification after an impressive play-off mauling of Napoli. Los Leones will be relishing their first group stage fixture for sixteen years when they face Shakhtar Donetsk three days hence – in their stunning new stadium to boot – but it is inconceivable they will weaken their admittedly slim chances of success here by ‘resting’ Iker Muniain and co. Quite the opposite: Ernesto Valverde’s men will be confident of taking advantage of any glitches in the new Barcelona matrix and in Aritz Aduriz they have a striker in the form of his life who will lead the line superbly and intelligently use any scraps of possession that comes his way. Though now 33, Aduriz has just this week been offered a contract extension and is enjoying nationwide calls to add to his single international cap.
Another key figure who makes an impossible result at least imaginable is Beñat Etxebarria whose combination of craft and graft in the middle is so indispensable for Bilbao. A fine season from the schemer and the sale of Herrera this summer becomes a distant memory for the Basque public. Blessed with guile and the ability to pick out a catalogue of passes it is Beñat’s willingness to run himself into the ground for the cause that makes him so priceless in a daunting fixture such as this.
Granted the visitors haven’t won in Catalonia since November 2001 but let’s not forget it was Athletic who derailed Barca’s express train last year with a 1-0 victory at the San Mames to end a fourteen game unbeaten run. They will be prepared for the possession stats to be heavily against them. They will be ready for Messi to mesmerise. But they will be undoubtedly up for the upset.
Should that occur then the optimism of Barcelona’s new dawn will see its first shadow cast.
Betting Instinct tip – Athletic to avoid defeat at Camp Nou is 3.26 with AllYouBet.ag