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Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 23/20
Barcelona will be looking to strengthen their position in the La Liga title race when they travel to face Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames Barria stadium on Sunday evening, while the hosts aim to regain a foothold in the battle for the table positions which lead into European competitions next term.
The season overall hasn’t been too bad for Bilbao, but some underwhelming performances and disappointing results in recent league matches have caused them to lose some ground as they strive to appear in Europe in 2023/24.
Their last-six run in all competitions consists of a 4-1 home win over Cadiz, a 1-2 win away to Valencia, a 1-0 defeat to Atletico in Madrid, a 2-3 defeat at home against Girona, a 1-0 loss away to Osasuna in the first leg of their clash in the semifinals of the Copa del Rey, and a goalless draw away to Rayo Vallecano.
As things stand at the moment, the team coached by Ernesto Valverde, for whom the visit of Barcelona will be a chance to catch up with some of his former charges from his days at the Camp Nou, sit in ninth place with 33 points. That’s four points behind sixth-place Villarreal, two points less than Rayo Vallecano in seventh, and one point less than Osasuna in eighth. Mallorca and Celta Vigo are immediately below, both on 31.
Midfielder Oihan Sancet is suspended, having received a straight red card against Rayo Vallecano. Goalkeeper Unai Simon (Achilles tendon), winger Jon Morcillo (Collarbone fracture) and midfielder Ander Herrera (hamstring) are absent through injury. Right-back Inigo Lekue is a doubt through a hamstring issue which forced him off against Rayo.
Defender Inigo Martinez, reportedly of interest to Barcelona for a long time, recently overcame a foot problem and is set to keep his place in the starting XI.
Julen Agirrezabala will deputize for Simon in goal again, Oscar de Marcos, Dani Vivian, Inigo Martinez, and Yuri Berichiche are expected to form the back line. Oier Zarraga and Mikel Vesga should pair up in the middle of the park, with the trio of Nico Williams, captain Iker Muniain and Inaki Williams supporting Gorka Guruzeta in attack.
As has been said, Barcelona are looking to strengthen their position at the top of the table and steal the crown from arch-rivals Real Madrid, ahead of whom they have a six-point advantage after Los Blancos triumphed over their neighbours, Espanyol, on Saturday. With Atletico Madrid in third now 17 points behind, the race should really come down to just the top two between now and the end of the season.
Barca’s focus on this front should now be stronger, given that they’ve been eliminated from the Europa League by Manchester United in the knockout stage play-offs.
The current last-six run of the Catalan team includes both matches against United, the 2-2 draw at home and the 2-1 defeat away, with a 2-0 home win over Cadiz in between. They suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat away to Almeria, before beating Real away in the first leg of the other Copa semifinal. Last week, Raphinha scored the only goal in their 1-0 home win over Valencia, a game that saw defender Ronald Araujo sent off after just under an hour.
Apart from the suspended Araujo, midfielders Pedri and winger Ousmane Dembele are unavailable through a muscle and a hamstring injury, respectively.
Midfielder Gavi is available having served a suspension, as is reportedly striker Robert Lewandowski, after recovering from a hamstring problem.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen will be standing between the posts, with Sergi Roberto and Alejandro Balde flanking Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen in the back line. Franck Kessie should join Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong in the middle of the park, with Gavi playing further up to support Lewandowski with Raphinha.
In what could yet turn out to be a preview of the Copa del Rey final, Barcelona will likely get the three points they need through superior quality and far greater level of consistency.
Verdict: Away win
Best odds: 23/20