On Friday, January 20, the Catalans face their next challenge in the race for the Copa del Rey title – an away visit to the San Mamés Stadium where Athletic Bilbao awaits them. While Athletic may traditionally be considered underdogs in this fixture, an upset could be on the cards, especially when considering the club’s solid form in recent games. But how great is the threat that The Lions pose to Barcelona?
In recent fixtures, Athletic Club has proven to be a formidable opponent against any club regardless of stature. Having won three of their last five fixtures and drawing one, Athletic’s standout moment in recent games is undoubtedly their unexpected 2-1 victory over Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa de España semi-final. If this result proved anything, it’s that The Lions have the power to cause a major upset on the right day.
When looking at Bilbao’s season to date, it’s clear that the club has proven to be a defensive powerhouse. So far, Athletic has conceded 17 goals in 21 games; the second-lowest tally in the league behind Sevilla. Furthermore, Athletic’s conscientious backline has enabled them to pick up points against some of the frontrunners in the La Liga title race, including a goalless draw away at Atletico Madrid and a 1-1 draw with Barcelona themselves early on in the season.
On occasions when the team’s defense has proven unreliable, Athletic Bilbao has still exhibited a resolve that has enabled them to claw their way back into a game even when on the back foot. Standout moments include a 1-1 draw away at Real Sociedad when a 10-man Bilbao drew level through a 91st minute Iker Muniain strike. The Lions also came from behind to clinch a 3-2 victory over Real Betis, with Oscar de Marcos scoring an 89th-minute winner.
Even against league leaders Real Madrid, Athletic showed true grit, pushing the Galacticos to the limit only to lose 2-1 in their La Liga fixture. Despite having only maintained 40% ball possession, The Lions fired 15 shots at the Galacticos’ goal, exceeding Real Madrid’s shots tally of 12. During their 2-0 loss to Los Blancos in the Supercopa de España on Sunday, Athletic continued to push the envelope until the final minute, with Mikel Vesga almost scoring from a dangerous header. Athletic was also awarded a penalty during the same phase of play, which Courtois managed to narrowly save with his left foot.
If there is one weak spot that Athletic has displayed, it’s the team’s lack of firepower. The Lions have only scored 20 goals in La Liga this season; the lowest tally for any team on the top half of the league table. This means that the Blaugranes may have to rely on their defense in order to shut out Athletic and scrape through to the quarter-finals.
In La Liga, Barca has struggled to maintain a solid defensive form, conceding 23 goals in 20 games. Fortunately, the Catalans’ backline is almost at full force once again, with latest reports suggesting Ronald Araujo, Gerard Piqué, and Jordi Alba to all be available for selection. The only defensive casualty as of late is Samuel Umtiti, with the club reporting the center back to be sidelined for three months after undergoing metatarsal surgery in his right foot.
Still, one cannot rule out the Catalans’ potential to cause problems at the back for Athletic. One has to go back as far as Barca’s 3-0 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich for the last time that the Blaugranes were unable to score. Since then, a range of Barca attackers has managed to bag goals, including the likes of Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, and Luuk de Jong. Hopefully, Barca’s depth of attacking options will enable them to find the back of the net.
Athletic has consistently proven to be a hard-working team that will push the envelope until the final whistle. As a result, Barcelona will have to dig deep in order to gain the edge in what might be a cagey round of 16 clash. Still, with a range of attacking options including recent signing Ferran Torres, the Catalans certainly have the firepower to pull off the victory.