More than two years after arriving at the Camp Nou, Marc-Andre ter Stegen will finally get chance to cement himself as Barcelona’s La Liga No. 1 in Sunday’s trip to Athletic Bilbao. Since arriving from Borussia Monchengladbach, the Germany international has had to settle for being Barcelona’s cup goalkeeper, a role which has brought the hardly insignificant rewards of a Champions League and two Copa del Rey titles.
But the job sharing with Claudio Bravo, who took duties for the 38-game league season, could only continue for so long. And this week it came to an end when Bravo joined Manchester City. With Ter Stegen nine years Bravo’s junior, it is a move that makes sense for Barcelona with an eye to the future. And, despite Barcelona immediately reacting by bringing in Netherlands international Jasper Cillessen, who is unlikely to settle quietly into a backup role, it is now expected that Ter Stegen, who has recovered from an injury that kept him out last week, will be the man for both La Liga and the Champions League.
“I’d like to say Claudio’s work here has been incredible, professional,” Barcelona coach Luis Enrique said ahead of the match with Athletic Club. “He’s a unique person who brought a lot to the team at a moment when the goalkeeping situation, after Victor Valdes left, was in doubt.
"I’d also like to say that all three goalkeepers have behaved excellently on a daily basis. Their behavior has been an example, as I expect now [with Cillessen arriving]. The most important thing is sporting success. When players sign they do so to win titles. The goalkeeping [changes] has only been successful due to the players’ behavior, if there hadn’t been harmony it would have been impossible.”
While much focus in the past few days has been on the goalkeeper situation, the start of the season has seen Barcelona’s stars at the other of the pitch pick up right where they left off. In the opening game of the league campaign against Real Betis last Saturday, Barcelona hammered Real Betis 6-2 at the Camp Nou, with Luis Suarez bagging a hat-trick and Lionel Messi starring with two goals and an assist.
Arda Turan got the opening goal that day and will get another chance in the front three on Sunday with Neymar given extra time off after leading Brazil to Olympic gold a week ago. Andre Iniesta and Jeremy Mathieu remain sidelined by injury, but Enrique will have Rafinha back available, with the midfielder used sparingly alongside Neymar in Brazil. While Cillessen won’t be in contention in Bilbao, fellow summer arrival Andre Gomes could make his debut after being suspended last week. Javier Mascherano, meanwhile, has returned from injury.
But Barcelona knows to expect a tough challenge on Sunday. Fifth in La Liga last season, Athletic is a particularly formidable prospect at its San Mames stadium, a fact Barcelona discovered when going down 4-0 to Ernesto Valverde’s side in the Spanish Super Cup a year ago.
“It’s a pleasure to play at San Mames and we’re focused on the way Valverde will complicate things — pressing high, creating problems on the second balls,” Enrique said. “It’s one of the most difficult away games in La Liga. San Mames is an incredible stadium, the atmosphere is similar to English football. Valverde is very intelligent. They’re a hard working team, I like watching them play, it’s never not tough against them.”
Athletic didn’t exactly enjoy a flying start to this season, however, losing 2-1 at Sporting Gijon. And Valverde has an injury doubt over defensive midfielder Mikel San Jose going into Sunday’s clash.
Prediction: It should be an entertaining contest at San Mames. Athletic certainly has the capability to cause Barcelona problems with the combination of Inaki Wailliams and Artiz Aduriz going forward. But at the other end it is doubtful that Athletic will be able to keep out Messi, Suarez and Turan, all of whom have begun the season superbly.
Predicted Score: Athletic Bilbao 1-3 Barcelona
Kickoff Time: 2.15 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: beIN Sports
Live Stream: beIN Sports Connect