Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta will once again do battle with Cristiano Ronaldo for the 2012 Ballon d'Or, and have another chance to display their technical superiority with the arrival of Athletic Club to town. Following two final appearances last season Marcelo Bielsa told his players: "It’s not about winning, it is about how we lost." He certainly wasn't happy with the 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid a fortnight ago, and a repeat performance would disenchant fans even further.
Barça will be without both their Brazilian full-backs; Dani Alves due to a hamstring strain and Adriano because of a stomach virus. Tito Vilanova has spoken of retraining Alex Song as a full-back, but Martín Montoya will probably be used. Athletic have their own defensive issues, with Andoni Iraola limping out of training with a thigh injury on Thursday having been ever-present in the league. Fernando Llorente started his second game in a row in midweek, and a third straight start would signify a significant change in the relationship between manager and player.
A 3-1 win over Alaves was not the truest test of where Barcelona are right now, while a record of 37 points from a possible 39 also papers over some cracks. Results and statistics suggest they are once again infallible, but performances and control aren't quite at that level.
It's been a poor start for Athletic Bilbao, but they have still won the same number of games as they had at this stage last season. Then, they were two points better off and nine points behind a top four position; now they are trailing 4th place by just seven points. "Our position in the table does not correspond with the players at our disposal or the size of the club," said Bielsa. Without the added distraction and workload of the Europa League, the turn of the year will shape the Argentine's fortunes.
Athletic are looking to end a run of eight consecutive defeats in La Liga at the Camp Nou; the last time they gained anything from the fixture Patrick Kluivert was on the scoresheet. The two Ballon d'Or finalists saw them off last time around.
Few would bracket Messi and Aritz Aduriz together, but they have both been flying for their respective clubs. The 31-year-old former Valencia striker returned to the Basque country in the summer, quickly establishing himself as a key ingredient in Bielsa's complex recipe. With eight goals to his name this season, he is 16.00 to open the scoring here. In eleven of the twelve games that Messi has found the net, he has scored at least two goals. He is 2.55 for first goal or 2.00 for another double.
The Catalan club celebrated their 113th birthday this week. They have collected many titles throughout the years though few have been as trophy laden as the last eight. Athletic's defence has suffered from constant change and instability, and the league's top scorers are unlikely to hold back. Few would bet against Barcelona winning at the moment, although odds of 1.10 may not tempt.
It's feasible to suggest that the forgotten scoring machines of both clubs may do well in this sort of fixture. David Villa scored a brace in midweek, earning praise from his manager: "I think David has been good, he has scored twice and has completed 90 minutes. Every day I see him getting better," said Vilanova. Villa can be backed to score at 1.75.
Fernando Llorente was accused by the Athletic of refusing to do the club press conference. "I cannot be in two places at the same time and I've not disobeyed anyone. They only notified me as I was leaving training and as I'd already agreed to do this interview I couldn't be in both places at once," explained Llorente. The target man is at 4.10 to get back amongst the goals.
Score prediction: Barcelona 4-1 Athletic Bilbao (14.00)