Ernesto Valverde returns to Bilbao today hoping for a win against his former club. Valverde played for Athletic Bilbao in 1990 after playing at Barcelona for two years in a deal worth around 750,000 EUR. Now, almost 30 years later, he is back at the Blaugrana club but says that the Lions are the club he identified with the most.
“Regardless of your career, all the teams you’ve played for, every person has a team they identify with and mine is Athletic,” Valverde revealed this week. “It will be an emotional game for me. It always has been when I have been back [at Bilbao] with other teams, too. I won’t talk about statistics, though, because it’s not gone well!”
In the eight times that he has been on the away side in Bilbao, Valverde has lost all three matches as a player and lost four out of five times as an away coach. The only time he did not lose was a La Copa del Rey draw with Espanyol.
The Bilbao fans and team still hold a lot of respect for the Barcelona coach who was replaced by Jose Angel Ziganda earlier this year. Typically, Ziganda has been receiving a lot of questions comparing this season’s performance to last year’s. Ziganda commented, “being compared to Valverde does not bother or affect me and it does him justice to recognize his great four years here.”
Barcelona are looking to continue their great run of form at San Mames. So far in La Liga this season, Barça have won eight out of nine matches. The BlauGrana club has kept six clean sheets and scored 26 goals. Not bad considering we are still in October. The Catalan club is currently sitting at the top of the table with a four-point lead.
On the other hand, Athletic Bilbao are struggling to get into a rhythm this season. Ziganda’s side currently occupies 11th place with 11 points. They have won one match in October across all competitions. Albeit, it was the only match they were at home for. Last week, they drew with Formentera in the Copa del Rey and lost away at Leganés.
Valverde has a couple of key players out this week. Iniesta is injured with a minor muscle problem. Depending on whether Valverde starts Roberto, Denis Suárez, Paulinho or Gomes in midfield, it will really affect the formation of the match. Without Iniesta, we might not see the typical 4-4-2 formation.
Mascherano has also been ruled out of today’s match as he is now sick. Barcelona tweeted this morning that “Javier Mascherano has a fever and will not play against Athletic Club. His availability will depend on the evolution of his illness.”
The loss of these key players, as well as the continued absence of Dembélé, Aleix Vidal, and Turan, just to name a few, means that tactically we could see a very different Barcelona team. These injuries force Barcelona to adapt to a style of play that they are less comfortable with.
At least in terms of injuries, Bilbao are better off than Barcelona. They have a right- and left-back both out with sprained ankles. Muniain on the left wing is out with a cruciate ligament rupture which is a blow for the Lions. But, other than that, so far they have been lucky this season on the injury front.
Athletic is looking forward to hosting the Catalan club today at San Mames. Ziganda said, “I don’t fear anything, I think we are going to have a great atmosphere and spectacle, it will be a typical Athletic – Barça.”
Considering the political situation engrossing Catalonia at the moment, and the absence of their talisman captain Iniesta, it will probably be anything but typical.