Athletic Club Bilbao (9th, 33pts) vs FC Barcelona (1st, 62pts)*
*Points and positions at the time of writing on Saturday
Competition/Round: 2022-23 La Liga, Matchday 25
Barcelona Outs & Doubts: Pedri, Ronald Araujo, Ousmane Dembélé (out)
Athletic Outs & Doubts: Unai Simón, Ander Herrera, Jon Morcillo, Oihan Sancet (out)
Date/Time: Sunday, March 12, 2023, 9pm CET/WAT (Barcelona & Nigeria), 8pm GMT (UK), 4pm ET, 1pm PT (USA), 1.30am IST (India, Monday)
Venue: San Mamés, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain
Referee: Jesús Gil Manzano
VAR: José Luis González González
How to watch on TV: ESPN Deportes (USA), TSN 3 (Canada), Viaplay Sports 1 (UK), SuperSport (Nigeria), Sports18 (India), Not Available (Spain), others
Following a hard-fought win over Valencia and a rare full week of rest and training in beautiful Catalonia, Barcelona return to action for a crucial La Liga test as they travel to hell, also known as the Cathedral of San Mamés, to face Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic Bilbao on Sunday Night Fútbol.
Barça come into this one with a six-point lead at the top of the table thanks to Real Madrid’s win over Espanyol on Saturday, which puts pressure on the Blaugrana to respond and restore their nine-point gap. A potential title-deciding El Clásico takes place at Camp Nou next week, and Barça could go into the international break with a mammoth 12-point lead with 12 games to go to pretty much seal the title if they win the next two.
It’s impossible not to have next week’s clash in mind as a fan, and the players should also be thinking about El Clásico when approaching this one against Athletic. The only chance to virtually knock Madrid out of the title race next week is to win this Sunday and have all the confidence in the world along with a nine-point lead going into the biggest game of the season.
Barça really do need all the motivation they can get to face Athletic at San Mamés. Even those who have only been Barça fans for a short period of time already know just how brutal it is to play in Bilbao and face not only a very good, tough team, but also go up against what is without a shadow of a doubt the best crowd in Spanish football, which pushes their team to achieve a level of intensity and passion that very few teams can reach in any stadium on Earth.
I can be accused of being a little too respectful of opponents sometimes, but there’s no hyperbole here. San Mamés really is hell for anyone who dares visit there, and all 5,400 seconds of playing time matter. Athletic don’t take a play off and go all out to suffocate their opposition and bring the fans into the game from the first whistle, and they have a whole lot of attacking talent that has played together for many years and can cause any team problems.
And Bilbao especially love getting up to play Barça, and always bring their A-game to these clashes. It’s a true battle that Barça will have to face without their two most creative forces in Pedri and Ousmane Dembélé, and Ronald Araujo’s absence will hurt too against the speed and skill of the Williams Brothers and Iker Muniain. But Robert Lewandowski is back to lead the attack, and Gavi returns from suspension to play the kind of high-intensity game that he loves more than anyone.
This is a massively important game and a gigantic challenge for a Barça team that is just two wins away from becoming the overwhelming title favorites. They can’t afford a single mistake and must take advantage of the full week of preparation to match Athletic’s intensity and somehow take the crowd out of it. Easier said than done, though.
Get ready for battle.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen; Kounde, Christensen, Alonso, Balde; Kessie, Busquets, De Jong; Raphinha, Lewandowski, Gavi
Athletic (4-2-3-1): Agirrezabala; De Marcos, Yeray, Martínez, Yuri; García, Vesga; Williams, Muniain, Berenguer; Williams
Athletic are hungry for a win and always bring their best when facing Barça, but the Catalans have Lewy back and know how crucial a victory is in this one: 3-2 to the good guys in a great game.