After two matches without success, Barca have a tricky home tie against los Leones...Keeping The Faith
Barcelona are a side used to winning with extreme regularity, so it has come of something of a shock that they’ve failed to win their last two encounters. Against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday evening, Pep Guardiola will want his side to re-establish themselves on the winning track, but their Basque opponents will not be willing lambs to the slaughter.
Last weekend’s fixture against Sporting de Gijon was expected to give Barca a relatively straightforward match to extend their record-breaking streak in Ligue 1, but instead they found themselves held to a 1-1 draw. David Villa was required to strike late on to save the Catalans.
Worse was to follow in midweek against Arsenal. When Villa struck in the first half, it seemed a case of business as usual for the Camp Nou outfit, but they were rocked by the Gunners’ second half revival, which leaves Barca staring at a 2-1 deficit going into the second leg in around 10 days.
“They have given me plenty of reasons to feel optimistic,” the coach argued to the club’s official website after the somewhat surprising midweek loss. “[The players] have achieved too much in a short space of time for me not to have faith in them.”
With their lead over Real Madrid in the Primera Division now cut to five points – and probably two come kick-off – Sunday night’s encounter is vital for la Blaugrana to regain their sense of greatness as the business end of the campaign looms.
Champions League Chasing
Having been on the fringes of the European race all season, Athletic Bilbao have thrust themselves into Champions League contention over the course of the last month with a series of impressive results.
Los Leones almost got themselves within touching distance of Villarreal and Valencia thanks to four successive victories, but a defeat against Mallorca away from home last weekend stalled them rather. They now lie seven points off the pace and can only hope not to lose too much ground over the course of the weekend.
“We did not play this match with the same intensity we had in our previous encounters. It was only in the second-half that we tried to win,” coach Joaquin Caparros lamented to Marca after the game. “We are in a position to sprint for a spot in the Champions League. It is within our reach.”
Recent displays have certainly made European football next season look likely for the San Mames outfit, though Caparros’ success has simply lead him to be courted by bigger clubs, with Sevilla rumoured to be keeping an eye on the Basque coach.
Athletic have made it clear they want to keep their general, and the lure of Champions League football with los Leones would certainly make their task in retaining the coach’s services an altogether easier one.
Caparros has already seen his side compete strongly against Barca this season, edged out of the Copa del Rey, and a repeat performance of those two encounters would be pleasing for the boss.
Jeffren continues to miss out, while there are still doubts over the fitness of Carles Puyol, who has been suffering from tendonitis.
Mikel San Jose and Igor Gabilondo have been training apart from the squad and both are doubtful for Sunday’s fixture. Ibai Gomez and Jon Aurtenetxe remain long-term injury concerns.
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