What: Spanish La Liga
Who: Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona
When: Sunday 6th November, 2011, at 19:00 UK time
Where: San Mames, Bilbao, Spain

On a Qualification High

A valuable away win over Red Bull Salzburg in Austria earned Athletic Bilbao a berth in the UEFA Europa League knockout stages in midweek, with the team leading Group F with two more games to go. However, continental duty will have to be frozen out of the club’s thoughts in Bilbao as the team get ready for their most important game of the season when they meet Spanish and European champions Barcelona.

Speaking after the game against Salzburg, coach Marcelo Bielsa was full of praise for his team’s display against their Austrian opponents, while hinting that his side still needs some polishing up in order to truly challenge for the Europa League: “I appreciate that we never gave up playing, but we lacked the finishing touch”, acknowledged the former Chile boss.

Irrespective of the fact that the match is played at the San Mames – a venue where Barcelona have a habit of dropping points – Bilbao will have to be at their absolute best should they want to have even the slight chance of a draw against the world’s elite side, who are enjoying a spell of wonderful form.

Back with a Bang

Reinventing football has been Barcelona’s main banner under the tutorship of Josep Guardiola. Just when the world believe that they have seen it all, Guardiola’s men go out and produce another masterclass showing they are worthy of their status as one of the best teams in the history of the game. In such good form, Bilbao should beware.

Barcelona’s important away win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League highlighted many important things: First of all, the win ensured the side progression towards the knockout stages of the competition. It also crowned an impressive week following their frustrating draw at the hands of Sevilla almost a fortnight before. Furthermore, the game marked Lionel Messi’s 200th competitive goal in a Barcelona jersey. The diminutive Argentinean is now just 32 short of Cesar Rodriguez’ scoring record of 235 goals, a number that could very well be broken this year should Messi continue his fine form.

With four league games remaining before the much anticipated Clasico in December, Barcelona will be hoping to harvest every single point in order to meet Real Madrid under the best conditions possible.

Recent form

Athletic Bilbao:
Athletic Bilbao 3-0 Atletico Madrid (27/10; La Liga)
Sporting Gijon 1-1 Athletic Bilbao (30/10; La Liga)
Red Bull Salzburg 0-1 Athletic Bilbao (03/11; Europa League)

Granada 0-1 Barcelona (25/10; La Liga)
Barcelona 5-0 Mallorca (29/10; La Liga)
Viktoria Plzen 0-4 Barcelona (01/11; Champions League)

Key absences

Athletic Bilbao: Carlos Gurpegui (doubt); Inigo Perez (doubt); Igor Martinez (doubt); Xabier Castillo (doubt)

Barcelona: Pedro; Ibrahim Afellay

Players to watch

Athletic Bilbao – Ander Herrera: The midfielder was imposing in the match against Salzburg, scoring the only goal of the game. Herrera’s performances in midfield have turned him into a true fan favourite ever since his arrival from Real Zaragoza in the summer, and a summoning to the Spanish national team would be ample acknowledgement of his efforts.

Barcelona – Lionel Messi: Having banished his Sevilla demons following a last-minute missed penalty against Los Rojiblancos, Messi was back to his astute best as the team humbled Granada, Mallorca and Viktoria Plzen. It is no secret that Barcelona function best when their star player is in top gear, and as things stand, he is showing no sign of slowing down.

Match Prediction

With things going Barcelona’s way lately, it is hard to see the Catalans dropping points, even in Basque territory. Bilbao could cause problems for Guardiola’s side on any other given day, but the league champions appear well in place to come out on top. Athletic Bilbao 0-3 Barcelona.

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