LaLiga: Miserly Barcelona faces Athletic without key defender

Xavi Hernandez's
return to Barcelona as its manager seemed to indicate a return to the club's flowing possession game in which he thrived in as a player, but his team has instead relied on a watertight defense as it closes in on the Spanish title. Barcelona visits Athletic Bilbao on Sunday as the club bids to preserve or even extend its nine-point lead on Real Madrid, which hosts Espanyol Saturday -- in the top two teams last league matches before the Clasico at Camp Nou on March 19.

The Catalans last won La Liga in 2019 and after heavy investment last summer, a need to produce instant results has influenced its approach. Barcelona has conceded just eight goals in 24 matches so far this season, keeping 18 shutouts in La Liga in that time. That is a better record than any other club in one of Europe's big five leagues has managed at the same point in the season in the 21st century. Bayern Munich achieved 17 shutouts in its first 24 matches of the 2012-13 season, also conceding eight goals. By contrast, Barcelona has only scored 46 goals, the lowest amount of any La Liga leader after 24 games since Valencia in the 2001-2002 season.

However, the Catalans will travel to San Mames without center-back Ronald Araujo, who has been key to the team's superb defense this season. The Uruguayan defender received a red card last weekend against Valencia for dragging down Hugo Duro as he ran towards the goal. Despite playing a man down after Araujo's exit, Barcelona managed to hold on for a 1-0 win -- its eighth La Liga victory by the same scoreline this season. The defender may be replaced by Jules Kounde or Marcos Alonso at the heart of the defense alongside Andreas Christensen.

While the team has been without playmaker Pedri, winger Ousmane Dembele and top scorer Robert Lewandowski, its defensive solidity has helped sustain its title charge.  The Polish striker, who is set to return against Athletic, credited his teammates for their key role this season.

"It's good to have a defense like ours for the strikers, we have more security, we can take more risks because we have our backs covered," Lewandowski told Barca Magazine on Thursday.  "Security makes it easier to score goals and the first step in every team has to be to have a great defense."

The Polish forward said that the team's style was also dependent on the type of players available to Xavi and based on the way that the game has changed since Xavi's playing days.

"Barca's DNA is to play good soccer, but you have to understand that soccer is changing," Lewandowski added. "For example, the way Barça played ten years ago might not work now. You have to find the perfect solution for where you are and the players you have."

Athletic Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde has his own thoughts on the issue of Barcelona's style. Despite winning two league titles, Valverde was sacked in January 2020 with the team top of La Liga, in part because of concerns over the team's unconvincing soccer. Valverde's Athletic started the season well but has lost momentum in recent weeks and sit ninth, although like Barcelona the Basque club has reached the Copa del Rey semifinals.

Saturday: Real Madrid vs Espanyol, Elche vs Real Valladolid, Celta Vigo vs Rayo Vallecano, Valencia vs Osasuna 
Sunday: Real Mallorca vs Real Sociedad, Sevilla vs Almeria, Villarreal vs Real Betis, Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona 
Monday: Girona vs Atletico Madrid


© Agence France-Presse

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