MADRID, Feb. 9 (Rahnuma): Liga Santander leaders FC Barcelona face a potential banana skin in their quest to retain the Liga Santander title when they visit Athletic Club Bilbao on Sunday night.
Depending on Saturday’s result of the Madrid derby between Atletico and Real Madrid, Barca could find themselves with their lead at the top of the table reduced to just three points or with the chance to open up an 8-point gap over their closest pursuers.
The return to Athletic’s San Mames Stadium is always special for Barca boss Ernesto Valverde, who has coached the Basque side in more games than anyone else in their 120-year history, but he has little time for sentiment in such a key game, which comes after a difficult week.
Barca were held by Valencia to a 2-2 draw in the Camp Nou a week ago, while Wednesday saw them play out an entertaining 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal.
Leo Messi was only a substitute in midweek after picking up a slight thigh strain against Valencia, but will be able to start in Bilbao, along with Ousmane Dembele, who is also available after overcoming a twisted ankle and a dose of flu.
However, Valverde will be without Jordi Alba through suspension and Arthur Melo with a torn hamstring.
Alba’s suspension is an issue for Barca, due to his understanding with Messi and the fact he has no direct replacement in the side and the coach will have to decide whether to repeat the experiment with Sergi Roberto on the left, or to try Nelson Semedo or Thomas Vermaelen, who a central defender though, is at least left footed.
Despite a drastic improvement under coach Gaizka Garitano over the past few months, Athletic are still involved in a battle against relegation and Garitano will be looking for a reaction after last weekend’s rather disappointing 2-1 defeat to Real Sociedad ended an unbeaten run of seven games, which yielded 15 valuable points.
Garitano’s main issue is whether and where to play Raul Garcia, knowing the attacking midfield can add extra bite to hit side, while Oscar de Marcos will cover at right back for the suspended Ander Capa.
The club’s decision to not charge club members to see the game should ensure something close to a full house and turn San Mames into a cauldron of pressure, but whether that will be enough if Messi has a good day remains to be seen.