The only game of the day in Spain’s top division pits the Champions, Barcelona, against one of La Liga’s strugglers, Athletic Bilbao. Both sides have been making the headlines this week, for all the wrong reasons, and the changes forced upon both of them will be under the spotlight at the San Mames this evening.
The pundits have all been trying to second guess how Rijkaard will adjust to life without Samuel Eto’o and with the clubs leading goal scorer out of action until next March, Barcelona may be forced to change their system as well as personnel.
Rijkaard has revealed that Javier Saviola will get his chance at some point or another and the Argentine has been included in the squad for this weekend's game.
Rijkaard said on Thursday that "Saviola has always worked hard even when he has not been playing and so he will now become one of our two main strikers,"
The manager, however, has been keeping his cards pretty close to his chest and has been giving little away since his team arrived in the Basque country. Last night he told reporters that “Normally we would start with Gudjohnsen who is our second striker but we could also change a few things around”
That’s been the cue for some frantic scribbling as the assorted press and pundits try to work out how Barca will shape up post-Eto’o. La Liga Review has been busy talking to some of those closest to the club and believes that there is a good chance that Rijkaard is thinking of lining up with his typical three pronged attack, utilising Giuly and Messi on the flanks and with Ronaldinho in the centre. Ronaldinho has played there before and although he is not a recognised centre forward, Rijkaard is considering him as , what the Spanish call a ‘mediapunto’ – someone who will drop slightly deeper and supply the flanks but able to puncture a stretched defensive line.
Barcelona fans may recall that Johan Cruyff operated a similar system in his first season with the Dream team, before signing Romario. The Dutchman deployed Laudrup in the centre, as a withdrawn striker and provider for Goikoetxea and Stoichkov down the flanks.
If Ronaldinho does play through the middle he will required to perform above the level that he has delivered so far this season in this, his 100th league game for the club. Eto’o is going to be sorely missed, and the statistics back this up (he has opened the scoring for Barcelona in exactly half their matches) – the question is, not if but ‘how much?’
Rafael Márquez and Giovanni van Bronckhorst return to the squad in place of Silvio Mendes 'Sylvinho' and Oleguer Presas.
Athletic have also had pretty eventful week and they will go into this evening’s home match with a new president in charge following Lamikiz’s resignation in midweek, closely followed by half of the board.
Ana Urquijo became the first female president in the club's 108-year history and faces a very tough task in stopping the rot at this fiercely proud Basque institution.
The ‘Lions’ are still looking for their first win and as if facing Barcelona wasn’t enough, matters have been made worse for Athletic, they had Aritz Aduriz and Ander Murillo sent off last week and the pair now face bans.
Etxeberria, Garmendia and Yeste all appear to have overcome their injuries as they have been included in Athletic coach Felix Sarriugarte's 20-man squad for the game. Casas, the left back, remains a doubt, however and this may force Sarriugarte to deploy either Sarriegi or Exposito in his place - both right footed and neither of them ideal against the pace of Giuly or the guile of Messi.
In fact , defensively, Athletic a re a real course for concern against Barcelona and they will be breathing a huge sigh of relief that the frighteningly slow Sarriegi and Prieto will not have to face the explosive pace of Eto’o.
Athletic have lacked the aggression that is usually associated with this Basque club and they have shown little willingness to apply pressure to an opponent in possession – a fatal error against Barcelona- and would be advised to follow Seville’s example and try not to give the Catalans too much time to dwell on the ball. A lot easier said than done, however, and Athletic will undoubtedly depend on their more direct style of play in possession whilst hoping to sit back and catch Barcelona on the break.
The senior players like Yeste, Urzaiz, Etxeberria and Iraola will need to take a step up tonight and lead the way for a very youthful team, totally lacking in confidence, if they are to avoid heaping further humiliation on their suffering supporters.