FC Barcelona are in Bilbao

Barça landed in Bilbao and went to their hotel to relax before tonight's match. / MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB
The plane carrying the Barça expedition landed in the Biscay capital at 12.00pm (CET)

FC Barcelona are in Bilbao. The team’s plane landed in Bilbao at 12.00pm (CET) ahead of tonight’s league match. The flight departed from Barcelona’s El Prat airport at 11,15am (CET).

The Club’s expedition, including the 18-man squad, was led by Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, vicepresident Javier Faus and director Silvio Elías.

After landing in Bilbao, the team went to the Carlton Hotel to rest before tonight’s 9.00pm (CET) match at the new San Mamés.

Match Preview: Athletic Club Bilbao v FC Barcelona

Neymar and Luis Suárez, earlier this season / FCB ARCHIVE
Barça head to Bilbao with a chance to get within a single point of the league leaders

FC Barcelona travel to the Basque country to face the always difficult Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, knowing that a win would take them to within a point of Real Madrid at the top of the table. With eight wins out of their last eight games and a total of 29 goals in the last month, Luis Enrique’s side is, as Gerard Pique confirmed this week, “in winning form in the league and the cup, and that’s generating high hopes and confidence.”

Squad News

Luis Enrique is bringing 18 players to San Mamés. The coach has included all available first-team players except Jordi Masip, Martín Montoya and Sergi Roberto, and the injured Douglas and Thomas Vermaelen. No Barça B players made the list. Defender Marc Bartra is back in the squad after being left out last week.

Barça’s squad: Bravo, Ter Stegen, Alves, Piqué, Adriano, Alba, Bartra, Mathieu, Mascherano, Sergio, Xavi, Iniesta, Rakitic, Rafinha, Pedro, Neymar Jr, Messi and Suárez

Athletic Club’s squad: Iraizoz, Toquero, Aurtenetxe, Laporte, San José, Beñat, De Marcos, Ibai, Iago Herrerín, Susaeta, X.Etxeita, Mikel Rico, Gurpegi, Muniain, Aduriz, Aketxe, Balenziaga, Unai López, and Williams.

Coaches’ viewpoint

Luis Enrique knows what to expect from the Basques, explaining in his press conference on Saturday: “They compete for every ball, you can’t relax for two seconds. And they have a lot of physical players that are strong in the air. Their season didn’t get off to a great start, but I think that’s because they were struggling to play in both La Liga and the Champions League.”

Photo Gallery: Saturday’s training

Form Guide

After a welcome week off from Cup action, Barça will be looking to lengthen their eight game winning streak. Luis Enrique’s side have scored 10 goals in their last two league games on the road (0-4 against Deportivo and 0-6 at Elche), but they opened 2015 with a defeat in the Basque Country – losing 1-0 to David Moyes’ Real Sociedad. Athletic are sitting in the 12th spot, having won just three of their 10 games at the New San Mamés so far this season, with the 1-1 draw against Málaga in their last game putting an end to a three match losing streak at home.

Ones to watch

Jordi Alba has been putting in some excellent performances over the last few games and he told reporters this week: “I’m having a very good time; the same feeling I had in 2012.” Expect to see him bombing down the touchline on Sunday. For Bilbao, Arduriz has been their main threat up front, but Munian seems to be coming back into form and he also scored the only goal when Barça lost at the San Mames last season.

History

There’s a long history between the two clubs, but for many fans, Pep Guardiola’s triumphant final game in charge when Barça lifted the Spanish Cup in 2012 has to be the most memorable.

Coverage

The game is being shown live by Sky Sports in the UK and beIN Sports in the US.

No matter where you are in the world we have you covered. And remember, you can also listen to live play-by-play in English on Radio Barça. The radio link will appear on www.fcbarcelona.com just before kick-off. Twitter users can follow @FCBarcelona for a live feed of all the action.

The 18 players listed for the trip to San Mamés

Messi and Neymar lead the squad list headed to Bilbao. / MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB
Luis Enrique includes everyone available except Masip, Montoya and Sergi Roberto along with the injured Douglas and Vermaelen

Barça’s 18

Bravo, Ter Stegen, Alves, Piqué, Adriano, Alba, Bartra, Mathieu, Mascherano, Sergio, Xavi, Iniesta, Rakitic, Rafinha, Pedro, Neymar Jr, Messi and Suárez

Luis Enrique is bringing 18 players to San Mamés. The coach has included all available first-team players except Jordi Masip, Martín Montoya and Sergi Roberto, and the injured Douglas and Thomas Vermaelen. No Barça B players made the list.

Marc Bartra – who was left out of the squad for the last weekend’s win over Villarreal – returns to the list for the 9.00pm (CET) match pitting FC Barcelona and Athletic Club de Bilbao. Should Barça win, they’ll draw to within one point of leaders Real Madrid, who fell 4–0 on Saturday to Atlético Madrid.

Athletic Club’s squad

Athletic Club head coach Ernesto Valverde‘s list for the match versus Barça includes: Iraizoz, Toquero, Aurtenetxe, Laporte, San José, Beñat, De Marcos, Ibai, Iago Herrerín, Susaeta, X.Etxeita, Mikel Rico, Gurpegi, Muniain, Aduriz, Aketxe, Balenziaga, Unai López, and Williams.

FC Barcelona facing tough challenge in Bilbao

Neymar will be looking to score for the first time at San Mamés / PHOTO: MIGUEL RUIZ - FCB
The Catalans are in search of their first win at the new San Mamés, which would extend their unbeaten run to nine games

FC Barcelona are away to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday night at 9.00pm (CET), and on the same weekend as the Madrid derby, this could be a key game in deciding the ultimate outcome of the Liga title. The visitors are in a buoyant mood after winning their last eight official matches.

Since starting the year with defeat at Anoeta, Barça have done nothing but win both in the league and cup. The upshot of that is that they’re second in the former and into the semi-finals of the latter, where they will face Villarreal. In doing so, they have scored an astonishing 29 goals and conceded just five.

Back to San Mamés

But Barça have not won a league game in Bilbao since the 2010/11 season, when they won 3-1 with goals from Xavi, Keita and Sergio. The last three visits have resulted in two draws and one defeat.

Both the game in 2011/12 and the one in 2012/13 ended 2-2, with Messi featuring prominently in both. Last season was Barça’s first visit to the brand new San Mamés, but there was disappointment for Tata Martino as well. Barça lost 1-0. The Basques are currently twelfth in the league table and through to the cup semi-finals, where they’ll face Espanyol.

San Mamés 'special' for Luis Enrique

Luis Enrique was speaking to the press after the team trained on a bitterly cold Saturday morning/ MIGUEL RUIZ - FCB
The FC Barcelona manager says this week’s training sessions have been the best of the season so far but knows Athletic Bilbao will be a very difficult test

Focused on football

Luis Enrique was asked about the institutional affairs that have affected the club this week, and whether they have had any impact on his squad’s preparations. “Not at all” he replied. “The team is concentrating on its own job, which is to play football and win titles … For various unfortunate reasons, this team is used to having to avoid being distracted by non-sporting matters.”

[[DES_1]]Luis Enrique told his Saturday morning press conference how much he enjoys games away to Athletic Bilbao, the day before he is set to visit the new San Mamés for the first time as Barça manager. “It’s always very special because of the atmosphere there” he said. “It’s like an English stadium.” He visited the new ground for the first time last season when he was at Celta and says “it’s a beautiful stadium and we want to be worthy of such a place.”

On the opposition, he commented that “they compete for every ball, you can’t relax for two seconds. And they have a lot of physical players that are strong in the air … Their season didn’t get off to a great start, but I think that’s because they were struggling to play in both La Liga and the Champions League.” The Basques are currently twelfth in the table, but Luis Enrique feels “they have stayed faithful to the same Athletic style of the last few seasons. We know them well and we know Ernesto Valverde well. We know this is going to be a difficult match.” Indeed, Barça have not won away to Bilbao in any of the last three attempts.

He feels it has been a bonus not to have a midweek fixture going into the match. “These were the best training sessions we’ve had all season” he was happy to say. “They’ve been playing at an extraordinary level, so I’m pretty optimistic about our chances tomorrow.”[[CITA_1]]

The team has now won eight matches in a row, and commenting on that, the FCB manager said “it would be nice to think that there won’t be any more difficult situations between now and the end of the season. But there are bound to be games where we’re not quite as effective as usual and make mistakes … But all three of the top teams are going to have our bad days and there will be plenty of movements in the league table. Especially as we get nearer to the end of the season, when there are teams fighting against relegations, That’s when you always get surprises.”

Barça are four points behind leaders Real Madrid, who face Atlético Madrid in the city derby later today. “The best result for us would be a draw” said Luis Enrique. “Otherwise, it would always be better for the team lowest in the table to win. But I don’t base my methods on the scores between other teams. What we need to do is make sure we win our matches.”

All three of the top teams are going to have our bad days and there will be plenty of movements in the league table
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