Venue: Estadio San Mames, Bilbao
The beaten cup finalists come up against the team that won it all last year in the traditional curtain raiser of the Spanish football season. These two teams know each other well, having played each other in the Copa del Rey final last season. But since then, Barcelona has undergone some major surgery.
There is no real form guide to go on since pre-season friendlies are not exactly the most reliable performance gauge. However we can expect a hot atmosphere at San Mames where the passionate fans will try to cheer Athletic on past a walking wounded Barcelona squad that look short of a few key players.
Athletic Bilbao have had a pretty ordinary pre season, winning 2 games, drawing 1 and losing 3. They have already played 2 competitive games in the Europa League third qualifying round, enduring an embarrassing 1-0 loss at home to Swiss side Young Boys. They won the away leg by 2 goals to 1 to sneak into the next round on away goals, but scraping past Swiss opposition in the Europa League isn’t exactly the most convincing way to warm up for your league season. Bilbao also suffered losses to Benfica, with Barcelona old boy Saviola grabbing a brace, and Sporting CP of Portugal. Make no mistake though, they will be up for the Super Cup against Barca as they will want to avenge the 4-1 thrashing in the Copa del Rey final.
Barcelona, meanwhile, has had a pretty disjointed pre-season. First the Samuel Etoo-Zlatan Ibrahimovic saga meant that Barcelona were without a first choice centre forward for the first week of pre-season training. That added to injuries to Ibrahimovic Iniesta Marquez Messi and Henry have meant that Barcelona have been unable to train with their entire first team for the entire pre-season.
Despite this, the youngsters have filled in admirably. Players such as Fontas, Muniesa, Jonathan Dos Santos, Montoya, Ruben Rochina, Rueda and Gai Assulin have shown that the future of FC Barcelona is bright. The actual results were 3 wins and 2 draws. Still the lack of training time together for the first team must be a concern for the coach Pep Guardiola who would no doubt have wanted Ibrahimovic to have as much time as possible getting accustomed to playing with Messi Henry Iniesta and Xavi.
The KEY MEN
Llorente vs Bojan
Fernando Llorente first shot to prominence in the 2005 season with a hat-trick in a Copa del Rey game. He followed this up with 5 goals at the FIFA World Youth Championships in 2005 to finish as 2nd top scorer behind a young Argentinean prodigy by the name of Lionel Messi. Perhaps testaments to his quality are some of the other players that played in that tournament.
Players such as Ustari, Messi, Gago, Aguero, Garay, Zabaleta, Renan, (Barcelona left back target)Filipe Luis, David Edgar, Falcao, Freddy Guarin, Christian Zapata, Marcell Jansen, Andreas Ottl, Ryan Babel, Ibrahim Afellay, Hedwiges Maduro, John Obi Mikel, Raul Albiol, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Philippe Senderos and Freddy Adu were all present at that tournament and have gone on to play for some of the biggest clubs in the world at the highest level.
Llorente has steadily improved since and has become a regular starter in the past 2 seasons netting 11 and 13 league goals in the past 2 seasons. He also had 4 goals in Bilbao's Copa del Rey win last season including 1 goal in each leg of the semi final against Sevilla. He finished last season as Athletic's overall top scorer and was rumoured to be a target for FC Barcelona in the offseason. One thing is for certain if Athletic are to have any chance at winning the Super cup, Fernando Llorente is going to need to be at his best.
With Barcelona facing a mini front line crisis with Messi, Ibrahimovic and Henry all possibly missing the first leg of the Supercup, the responsibility of goal-scoring falls on the shoulders of Barcelona's golden boy Bojan. Bojan has been highly touted to break into the team over the past few years, but this season is the one for him to start delivering the goods on a regular basis. Critics have said that Bojan will never make it because he is too small and point to Bojan's drop in league goals from 10 in 2007/2008 to 2 in 2008/2009 as proof of his over-rated status.
A look at the raw facts shows that while Bojan did not do as well in the league, he performed better in the Cup competitions. In the Champions Leauge he scored 3 goals in 9 appearances in 2008/2009 as opposed to 1 goal in 9 appearences in 2007/2008. The Copa del Rey though is where Bojan really shone last season. He scored 5 goals in 8 games last season as opposed to 0 goals in 2 games the season before. Bojan showed his skill was indeed unquestionable, when he came in for the final of the Copa del Rey to replace the injured Henry, and netted the 3rd goal in Barcelona's 4-1 rout.
Overall, Bojan scored 11 goals in 18 starts and 24 subsitute appearances in 2007/2008 and 10 goals in 17 starts and 23 substitute appearances in 2008/2009. Now that he is the main replacement for Henry Ibra and Messi, Bojan needs to step up his game, and what better time to start than the 2009 Super cup? All Barca fans will be hoping that he carries his form of 3 goals in 5 pre-season games into the game on Sunday.
FORMATIONS AND TACTICS
Athletic favoured a 4-4-2 system last season but at times switched to a 4-2-3-1 to add an extra man in the midfield. Against Young Boys in the first leg Athletic fielded a 5 man midfield but in the 2nd leg they went for 2 strikers up front as they needed to win. Against Barcelona in the league last season, Athletic fielded a 4-4-2 lineup and I suspect that they will go for the win on their home ground where Barcelona have traditionally struggled to get results. With so many injuries the Barcelona first team basically picks itself with Valdes Pique Puyol Dani Alves Xavi Yaya and Bojan almost 100% sure to start.
Athletic 4-4-2 : Iraizoz, Iraola, Ocio, Amorebieta, Castilla, Orbaiz, Martinez, Yeste, Susaeta, Torquero, Llorente
Barcelona 4-3-3 : Valdes, Alves, Marquez, Pique, Abidal, Xavi, Yaya, Keita, Pedro, Bojan, Jeffren
HEAD TO HEAD
Athletic's only win against Barcelona at the San Mames in the past 5 years came in 2006 after Barcelona had already clinched the league title and had just won the Champions League against Arsenal. Barcelona, meanwhile, has scored more than 1 goal on just 1 occasion in their last 5 visits to Bilbao.
2004-05 : Athletic 1 - 1 Barcelona
May 06 : Athletic 3 - 1 Barcelona
Sep 06 : Athletic 1 - 3 Barcelona
Jan 08 : Athletic 1 - 1 Barcelona
Oct 08 : Athletic 0 - 1 Barcelona
A tough away game for Barca who are missing several key players. Bilbao will be encouraged by this despite their poor pre-season form but they will know that this Barcelona team can hold their own even when they are made up mostly of reserves in attack. With Barcelona knowing that they have the safety of returning to the Camp Nou for the 2nd leg and Ibrahimovic, Messi, Marquez, Henry and Iniesta all possibly returning we can expect them to try to hold Athletic and finish them off in the 2nd leg.
Prediction: Athletic 1 – 1 Barcelona
Sunday, 16 August 2009
Venue: Estadio San Mames, Bilbao